As an emotion, fear serves a basic function of keeping us safe. It is a part of the human survival mechanism. Without fear, our ancestors would have been killed and eaten by predatory animals, and the entire human race might have become extinct.
However, the purpose of fear today has evolved into something beyond mere survival. Today’s fears relate more to situations like crossing the road with care or handling fire with caution. But, while this is the perspective of adults, as far as toddlers are concerned, they still experience a primitive threat to their existence when they feel afraid.
How the fear of darkness affects children
Normally, children begin developing the fear of darkness when they are around two to three years old. The reason is that, at this age, their imagination begins to develop; yet, they are unable to differentiate the imaginary from the real. As a result, toddlers begin imagining scary monsters and frightening apparitions lurking everywhere, especially in the dark and feel scared.
So, if you insist that your toddler should go into a dark room to put his soiled clothes into the laundry basket, he might throw a tantrum instead. And, if you get annoyed, the situation might escalate into an unpleasant one.
While some children tend to act out when their fears are not acknowledged, others might withdraw and sulk, becoming quiet and isolated. In either of these scenarios, it is essential that parents intervene gently and help their little one overcome their fears.
Simple strategies to help your child overcome fear of darkness
Validate your child’s fear by saying something along the lines of, “I can see you are scared of the dark. It is okay to be scared. Do you want to tell me about your fears?” When your child tells you about monsters or apparitions, listen empathetically and try not to be dismissive of his fears. The monster may be his imagination, but the fear is very genuine.
Hello darkness: Tune in to your child’s feelings, and suggest that you will attempt to make friends with darkness. Accompany your toddler into a dark room, holding her hand, and say, “Hello, darkness! We are so-and-so, and would like to be friends with you.” Children who are two or three years old are just beginning pretend-play, and this technique appeals to them a great deal. You might find your toddler giggling as you do this, particularly if you make a serious and formal introduction between her and Mr Darkness. You can take it one step forward by requesting Mr Darkness to take care of her while she is alone with him.
Flashlight fun: An extension to the ‘Hello Darkness’ activity is Flashlight Fun. If you can invest in a pair of inexpensive flashlights, you might want to hang on to one while you give one to your toddler. Every evening, after dark, turn off all the lights in the house and play a game of ‘let’s find each other using our flashlights’. Your toddler will enjoy this so much that soon you will find him looking forward to darkness each day. Moreover, he might be so fascinated to have his own flashlight that he will soon start venturing into his dark room by himself, just to put his flashlight to good use.
There’s the light switch!: Empower your toddler by showing her where the light switch is, so she can enter her room by herself, using her flashlight to dispel the darkness momentarily until she flicks on the light switch. Soon she would be confident enough to enter familiar places even when it is dark. However, it would be a good idea to wait a few years to train her to venture into unfamiliar dark places.
Glow-in-the-dark stickers: Another fun way to chase away the fear of darkness is to have glow-in-the-dark stickers on the walls or ceiling of your toddler’s bedroom. When you do this, chances are, you will find him turning off the lights ever so often, just to have a glimpse of his favorite stickers.
Nice nightlight: Some children never get completely comfortable with pitch darkness. If your toddler is one of them, it might be worth investing in a fancy nightlight to install in her room so that she does not have to be in complete darkness through the night.
The important thing to remember is that with patience and understanding, you can help your little one overcome the fear of darkness. However, this can take time and a great deal of creativity from your end. If, even after all this, your child exhibits an extreme fear of darkness, it might be worth having her evaluated by a child psychologist to rule out or handle any specific trauma or bad experience.
Mina Dilip, Child Psychologist, Trainee Practitioner in Therapeutic Play Skills (PTUK)
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