Afraid of the Dark

Jan Faull, M.Ed., answers a parent's question about dealing with a child's fears.
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Q. I have a child that is scared of the dark, though she doesn't know exactly what she is afraid of. How can I help?

A. Children between the ages of 8 and 12 are aware of the dangers of living in the real world, but they don't have the experience or judgment to put their fears into proper perspective. With the rash of kidnappings last summer, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center September 11, 2001, and with war pending, kids are frightened. Additionally, there may have been local events, such as burglaries in your neighborhood, that your daughter has heard about. She may discuss these things with her friends at school. In addition, your daughter has likely seen frightening events on TV news shows. In short, your daughter knows scary, harmful events really do take place. In the middle of the night when it's dark, her imagination runs wild believing something awful may happen to her. Keeping this information in mind, ask your daughter: "What's going on?" "How are you feeling?" "What's making you scared?" Don't pooh-pooh her fears, by saying there isn't a reason to be afraid. Instead, offer empathy by saying: "I can see you're really afraid when it's dark." You walk a fine parenting line here. On the one hand you want to convey understanding of her fear of the dark but on the other hand, you don't want to solve the problem for her. So, you help her identify and articulate her fears, then offer suggestions as to what she should do. Keep in mind that she must learn to mange her frightening feelings on her own. If your daughter has trouble describing what about the dark that frightens her, ask the following questions: Are you afraid of monsters? Are you afraid of burglars? Are you afraid a fire might break out? Are you afraid in the darkness of your room or does walking to the bathroom in the dark frighten you? Are you scared of a terrorist attack? Once she's talked about her fears, shift into problem solving mode by saying: "I understand what frightens you. Now, what do you want to do about it?" Some solutions might include getting a night light, sleeping in a bedroom with a sibling, getting a phone in her room for her to call 911 if she sees fire or hears a burglar, putting a whistle on her nightstand for her to alert you to a dangerous situation. Would she like to take a karate class or a self-defense course? Your goal is to empower your daughter so that she feels and knows she has the resources to manage challenging situations.

 

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