Turning out the lights: Helping your child overcome a fear of the dark
Updated: Mar 11, 2021
My second son had the benefit of a dark room from day one and has been a great sleeper his whole life. But my first son... Well, let's just say after his fifth birthday I decided to rip the bandaid. Here's what I did:
First I communicated to him clearly what was going to happen. I told him we were going to sleep without any lights on. “Why?” he asked. “You are a big boy now and big boys can sleep in the dark.” I answered simply. I did not mention his fear of the dark or anything that would associate what we were doing with being scared. I kept it simply about the fact that he was growing up. He admitted to me he was afraid of the dark, but he didn’t whine or complain. He simply accepted this as a sort of “rite of passage” of being a big boy. In fact, he was actually proud to learn a new, “big boy” skill! I was surprised and relieved.
2. Come up with a plan together
Together, my son and I came up with a plan. I acknowledged his fear and told him we will do it gradually. He liked this idea. For the first few nights, I slept in his bed with him, cuddled him, and we talked until he fell asleep. Then the next few nights, I slept on the couch outside his bedroom, in case “he needed me.” Knowing I was just outside his door offered a lot of peace of mind. After that, I told him I would be sleeping upstairs again, in bed with daddy, but I would continue to check on him throughout the night. Knowing that I was making sure he was OK, put his mind at ease, and he agreed. Since I was already getting up once a night for my other son, who is currently potty training, it didn’t take a lot for me to simply peek in on him and keep my promise.
I always listened and acknowledged any fears he brought up, without validating them too much. How? This is actually a tip I learned from a fellow mom who follows the guidelines of a book called, Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen. You acknowledge the fear and without making light of it, make light of it. For instance, if the child says he is afraid of a bear coming into his room at night, in all seriousness you could reply, “Oh no! Bears like honey! Are you afraid the bear will be covered in honey and get you all sticky while he cuddles you?” You wouldn’t say, “Bears can’t get in here.” Or, “Bears live in the forest, not in the City.” No, you acknowledge the feeling, which is very real to him, without validating it. He will likely giggle and shake his head, realizing that it is a silly thing to be afraid of. Still, he will feel seen and heard, and that’s what is important.
4. Use helpful language
I never brought up the fear or used terms like, “scared,” “afraid,” or “scary.” I always acknowledged those things if he brought them up, but I tried to never attach them to this process, whenever possible. I wanted this to be a good thing, a new skill about growing up, not a scary thing that he has to do. How you frame it, and your response and reaction will make all the difference.
5. Think good thoughts
I intentionally put good thoughts in his head before bed. After I acknowledged any fears, we would conclude that conversation and I would say, “OK. This is what I want you to think about instead.” Then I would offer three, very visual and very pleasing images, to put in his head. For instance, I would say, “Close your eyes. I want you to picture our favorite doughnut shop. Got it? OK. Now you get to pick the BIGGEST jelly doughnut they have! Did you pick raspberry? Or lemon?” Smiling, he would answer, “Raspberry!” “OK,” I would respond, “You picked raspberry. Yay! The lady hands it to you and you take the BIGGEST bite! Ack! Raspberry jelly squirts ALL over you! Now you have to lick it all off! Yum yum!” He would often tell me the next day that he dreamed about the thoughts I put in his head - instead of the skeletons or darkness he was worried about before.
6. Make it fun
We learned about the word “nocturnal” and how our eyes and pupils work. Then we made a game out of pretending we were nocturnal animals who see in the dark. He loved this game! We would shut off the lights and then, before getting into bed, we would let our eyes adjust to the dark. We would talk about how our pupils are opening all the way to let the most amount of light in. Then we would make out shapes around the room. “I see my astronaut helmet!” he would tell me. “I see that too!” I would reply. “I also see your posters, your desk, your bookshelf…” “I see all that too!” he would exclaim proudly. Then we would congratulate ourselves for being nocturnal and he would crawl into bed, smiling.
He is sleeping better, longer and reporting better dreams in the morning. In fact, even the dreams that would result in nightmares before don’t cause him to wake. In one dream he had, he told me about a scary villain who was trying to get him. When I asked him why he wasn’t scared he said, “I just defeated the bad guy, mom!” No big deal, right? Very big deal. At least to me. I have to imagine defeating a villain that would have kept him awake in the past has something to do with defeating his fear of the dark.
I know it is an investment. If you do what I did, it will mean a week and a half of slightly sore backs, not sleeping in your own bed, maybe a slightly longer bedtime routine and possibly missing out on some of the after bedtime fun you normally have. But it will be worth it. Not only for his pride and joy at mastering a new skill and overcoming a major fear, but the joy of bonding with and teaching your child a new skill. Focus on the parenting and not on the inconvenience and you will actually enjoy this process. Good luck!