Our five year old is an only child who has been a difficult sleeper since
birth and has developed a severe fear of the dark. Every night she wakes up
crying, saying she's had a bad dream. It takes ages for her to go back to sleep. We have left numerous night-lights on in the hall and
in her room, but she becomes hysterical if we ignore her. She's also kind of
clingy. But she's otherwise very well-behaved in the day and very mature for her
age. Could you suggest a solution?
Many children are afraid of the dark when they are young, some more than
others. The shadows are moving around the room, the corners look spooky, there
might be a Blue Monster in the closet or under the bed and perhaps its just
scary to be all alone in the dark.
Up to the age of five or six, children have a tough time distinguishing
between what is real, and what is only part of an active imagination, making
nighttime a much more threatening proposition.
In addition, children who are especially sensitive or living in a stressful
environment (ie: a violent urban neighborhood or a home in which there is
marital discord) are also more likely to suffer from anxiety in general, and
especially fear of the dark.
So are children who are exposed to violent or other inappropriate content on
television, videos, movies, radio programs, or other forms of audio or visual
The reason? Children are highly impressionable and their minds record
absolutely everything. Even when they dont remember everything consciously,
underneath the surface childrens memories bubble away, cooking up a witchs
brew just waiting to rise when things are quiet and the lights are out.
Childrens imaginations, especially when they are intelligent children,
complicate the picture still further. Parental separation, illness in the
family, an overnight stay at the hospital
any type of trauma can contribute to
the anxiety that appears in the dark.
Inasmuch as your daughter is telling you that she is having constant
nightmares, and since you are describing hysterical crying, there is also the
possibility of a traumatic experience, if not several repeated traumas, possibly
sexual in nature. Unfortunately, in todays society, this must be considered as
If her fear is simply being all alone, in some cultures, your daughter would
not be facing that problem; she would be fostered out to the extended family and
be staying with cousins most of the time. Or she might be staying in your room,
her parents, much of the time.
There was a book written decades ago called The Family Bed which made the
case for children sleeping in their parents bed until they leave of their own
volition as they grow older and more independent.
I am not advocating this approach. I simply raise it to make the point that
there are different ways of viewing the matter.
Your daughter is obviously very sensitive, both emotionally and possibly from
a sensory and neurological standpoint as well, in that you describe her as
having been a difficult sleeper from birth.
It might also be useful to obtain an evaluation by an occupational therapist
who is an experienced, certified sensory integration specialist (SIS). Such a
person could easily tell you if your daughters central nervous system is high
strung, and if that could be causing some of this trouble. There are a number
of ways to remedy the problem if that is the case, and an SIS can help you with
If the anxiety is related to a past or current event, a play therapist
experienced in dealing with children and trauma can help you and your daughter
work through this problem.
What is clear is that she needs some extra help and the sooner she gets it,
the better shell feel.
Sleep deprivation will only make her symptoms and your suffering worse.
Best of luck with this