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For kids, fear of the dark is common. Here are ways to help them

THE WASHINGTON POST – If your child is afraid of the dark, they’re not alone.

“It’s very common in children and adolescents alike,” said Thomas Ollendick, a distinguished professor emeritus at the Child Study Center at Virginia Tech who has dedicated much of his career to understanding fears and phobias in children. He said a fear of the dark is among the three most recurrent he encounters.

“One review of 29 studies published over 40 years on the psychosocial treatment of nighttime fears in children found that children presented with a fear of the dark in 72 per cent of the studies,” said Simon Rego, the chief psychologist and director of the cognitive behavioural therapy training programme at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

The fear is so common that Gene Beresin, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at the Massachusetts General Hospital, called it “a normal phase of development”.

A fear of the dark occurs for reasons such as biological predispositions and evolution, as night is when ancient humans were most vulnerable to predators, experts said. Some children have had negative night-time experiences they associate with the dark such as wetting the bed or nightmares, while others struggle with more general fears and anxieties that are exacerbated by darkness or solitude. Limited visibility plays a part as well. “When we cannot see well, we feel more vulnerable,” said Joel Bienvenu, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

The reasons a child may be afraid of the dark can change.

“Different things contribute to a fear of the dark for different age groups,” said Wendy Silverman, the director of the Yale Child Study Center Program for Anxiety Disorders at Yale School of Medicine.

“For young kids ages two to four, seeing shadows and hearing noises is enough to make them think of monsters and boogeymen. For kids ages five to seven, starting school may develop separation anxieties from their parents which can translate into not wanting to be alone at night. Kids ages eight to 12 catch bits and pieces of the news and may hear scary stories about burglars and violence from other kids in the neighbourhood.”

The common thread linking every age group – and the most frequently cited contributing factor of this fear – is excitable imaginations. “Children have active imaginations and are still developing their ability to differentiate fantasy from reality,” said Mari Kurahashi, a director in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Stanford School of Medicine.

“Children who are old enough to let their imagination run wild, but not yet old enough to distinguish their imagination from reality,” are especially prone to a fear of the dark, Rego saids.

A fear of the dark, though common, can still disrupt sleep cycles of children and parents alike through frequent nighttime interruptions or even impediments to everyday life. Beresin said that unmitigated fears can become phobias that could “involve panic attacks . . . heart palpitations, hyperventilation, dizziness, nausea, shakiness, feelings of terror and impending doom and intentional avoidance of the object of fear – in this case, a refusal to go to bed.”

Parents can help alleviate a fear of the dark through a variety of proven practices.

LIMIT EXPOSURE: Parents can handle overactive imaginations by limiting exposure to scary stories and images and by giving children something more enticing to think about instead.

Beresin said parents could find bedtime stories that are fun and stimulating to a child’s imagination and choose books that specifically address a fear of the dark. Doing so, he said, “has proven to be an effective technique in helping kids tackle fears of the dark”.

ADD A COMFORT ITEM: Coupling bedtime stories with comfort items such as a stuffed toy can also be helpful as these items can be “transitional objects” between a parent and child.

Tamar Chansky, a psychologist in suburban Philadelphia and author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, said that children often see soft comfort items as extensions of themselves that can help them build a relationship with oneself, “through the ‘middle person’ of their stuffed animal”.

“The goal is for kids to increasingly be able to reassure themselves,” she said. “Hugging a comfort item is a concrete way for kids to self-comfort even when their parents aren’t there.”