How to end fear of the dark

Fear of the darkMy 2-year-old daughter suddenly became afraid of the dark. “I’m scared of the dark!” became her screaming mantra at bedtime and her objection to entering any room without an electric light on–even when there was still daylight. This is how I helped to ease her back into a painless bedtime routine.

At first we tried insisting that the daylight or her night-light meant that the room wasn’t really dark. As if arguing with a 2-year-old would help! It was dark enough to scare her and our assurances could not make it better. For the first night we left her to work it out for herself. She yelled for a few minutes and then fell asleep.

The next night she expressed her fear again. On the spot, I invented a simple process which calmed her down after only a minute or two. After three bedtime sessions she stopped complaining about the dark.

For my little girl, darkness was a room-sized problem with no definite form. My strategy was to divide it into smaller problems with definite forms and then address them one at a time.

As a programmer, I like instructions to be clear and precise. The following procedure looks formal in print but in practice it’s best to be very casual and friendly, not robotic.

  1. Child expresses unbearable fear of the dark.
  2. Ask the child to point out something in the room that’s dark:
    “Show me something that’s dark.” “What’s dark in this room?”
    If she won’t choose something, ask about a specific thing:
    “Is the wall dark?” “Is your bed dark?” “Is your teddy bear dark?”
    Avoid things she can’t reach and touch.
  3. When you have identified something that’s dark, get her to look at it and touch it.
    “Touch that wall.” Be encouraging. Make sure she does touch it, then acknowledge her.
  4. Repeat steps 2 & 3 until the darkness is bearable for now.

This is a rough transcript of our first session:

Me: It’s time for bed.
Her: I’m scared of the dark!

I pick her up to calm her.

Me: Show me something that’s dark.
Her: …
Me: Is the wall dark?
Her: Yeah.

I put her down on her bed near the wall.

Me: Go touch the wall.
Her: No!

I pick her up and stand next to the wall.

Me: It’s okay. Touch that wall.
Her: No!
Me: Go ahead. You can touch it.

I take her hand and move it toward the wall. She resists and yells. I lean over so her hand touches the wall.

Me: Good! You touched the wall. Was it okay?
Her: … (not yelling)
Me: All right. Do you see anything else in the room that’s dark?
Her: …
Me: How about that chair. Is it dark?
Her: Yeah.
Me: Okay, let’s go touch it.

I carry her over to the chair. She reaches out to touch it.

Me: Very good! You touched the chair. Was it okay?
Her: Yeah.
Me: Good. I thought so. Let’s see what else it dark. Do you see anything dark in here?
Her: I just want in my bed.

I put her down. She climbs into bed and lays down calmly.

Her: I don’t like the dark.
Me: Okay. That’s fine. Good night, my girl.

Not liking the dark is a great deal better than being scared. But the following night she was scared again and refusing to get into bed. Back to step 1.

Me: Time to go to bed.
Her: I’m scared of the dark!
Me: Okay, let’s see what’s dark in here. Can you show me something that’s dark?
Her: No…
Me: How about that wall? [same one as last night]
Her: No.
Me: Is that chair dark? [again, same one as before]
Her: No.
Me: Is the air conditioner dark?
Her: Yeah.
Me: Okay, let’s go and touch it.

I put her down. She walks over to the window unit and feels it for a few seconds.

Her: [happy] It’s not dark!
Me: Great! It’s bedtime.

She climbs into bed and goes to sleep.

On the third night she complained again but not strongly.

Me: It’s time to sleep in your bed.
Her: I don’t want to in the dark.
Me: Oh. Is it dark in here?
Her: Yeah.
Me: Oh. What’s dark in here?
Her: Um…

She looks around at all the furniture.

Me: Is the wall dark? [same one]
Her: No.
Me: Is the chair dark?
Her: No.
Me: Is the air conditioner dark?
Her: No. [smiling]
Me: Is your bed dark?
Her: No! [giggling]
Me: Okay! Get in it!

That was the last night she expressed any fear of the dark at bedtime. If she gets scared again it’s back to step 1. I hope this works as well with our second daughter if she experiences the same fear.

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5 Comments

  1. aggiezoe

     /  September 6, 2012

    She has a couple of times randomly told me that Mommy is dark. Thanks for that.

    Reply
  2. I understand that in ancient Sparta children were driven into pitch black caves at spearpoint to deal with their fear of the dark. I think I like your method better.

    Reply
  3. Nice algorithm! I’ll use this in the future.

    Reply
  4. Mandy

     /  March 1, 2013

    I’m going to try this tomorrow night. My son started saying he is scared of the dark 2 weeks ago. We have tried some different things, night light (still too dark), children books about being scared of the dark (not getting it), talking about why it’s dark (seemed to help, but not for long) and even letting him know we would check up on him every 5 minutes (loved the attention). Now typing this I realize how inconsistent this looks. We now have him sleeping with the big light on, but he won’t fall asleep until close to 10pm, while his bedtime is 8pm.
    I’ll let you know how your method is working for me.

    Reply
  1. How to end Fear of the Dark - iamronen

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