Fear of the Darkness

Fear of the Darkness
Question: 

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?

Answer:

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 it’s 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 media.

The reason?  Children are highly impressionable and their minds record absolutely everything. Even when they don’t remember everything consciously, underneath the surface children’s memories bubble away, cooking up a witch’s brew just waiting to rise when things are quiet and the lights are out.

Children’s 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 today’s society, this must be considered as well.

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 daughter’s 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 those strategies.

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 she’ll feel. 

Sleep deprivation will only make her symptoms – and your suffering – worse.  Best of luck with this…


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