Afraid of the dark: 5 ways to help conquer their night fears

My two-year-old daughter has suddenly become afraid of the dark. There is a night light in her room, but she wakes up in the early morning, crying and covering her eyes. What can I do?

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Fears are a natural part of toddlerhood, although they can be unnerving for both toddlers and their parents. While new fears may look to you like regression, they are actually a sign of your daughter's new understandings.

Young babies don't know that things exist even if they can't see them. In other words, they are not sophisticated enough to be afraid of the dark. Your daughter, on the other hand, has had enough experience to know that the dark covers up things that are still there, even though she can't see them.

Your two year old also doesn't know enough about object constancy to understand that things don't just develop in the dark that weren't already there. She, therefore, can easily imagine that monsters or big dogs could be there in the dark, even though they weren't there when she turned off the light. Similarly, she may be seeing shadows and interpreting them as other, scary things. Her stuffed animal might take on a different look in the dark; a pile of toys might look frightening. This is all a normal part of your child's development.

Here are some ideas to help your little one conquer night fears:

1. Listen. Encourage your daughter to talk about her fears. Sometimes we avoid talking about fears with our children because we think that it might make the fears worse. However, allowing children to explore their fears and to talk about them is often an important step in understanding and overcoming them. Even if talking about fears doesn't fully resolve them, it teaches children an important tool to use for dealing with challenging feelings. Your daughter may not be able to tell you all there is to know about her fear, but your willingness to listen teaches her that her fear isn't too scary to deal with.

2. Acknowledge her fears. Talk to your daughter. It is tricky to figure out what to say to our children about their fears. We are often tempted to make fun of their fears or to just discount them, because we know they are usually nothing to be afraid of. "Don't be a scaredy cat. There are no monsters in your room." Although it is important to let children know that we aren't afraid, and that we don't see any monsters, it is just as important to acknowledge that they are feeling afraid. "I know that you are feeling afraid of the dark." You can go on to offer your perspective: "But I know that there is nothing in the dark that can hurt you." You and your daughter could even do a walking tour of her room: "Here is your dresser, here is your tricycle, here are your blocks." It is important not to discount her or belittle her perspective, even though you can tell her that you have a different idea. She is in the process of learning to trust her own view of the world and it is important that her thinking is respected.

3. Provide support. Even though both you and your daughter are probably excited about some of her newfound independence at this age, it is important to offer her support during times when she is fearful. You may need to go to her at night when she is afraid, to stay with her for a while, to hold her, or to talk to her about her fears.

4. Allow her to "obsess." Amazingly, most children have an internal drive to overcome their fears. They may talk about their fears incessantly; they may ask questions over and over again; they may ask to hear the scary story again and again, they may incorporate the thing that scares them into their play. Sometimes parents become worried that their child seems obsessed with her fear. Most of the time this "obsession" is a child's natural urge to master their fear. Children may be focused on a particular fear for several weeks; sometimes a few months. If your child hasn't made any progress or evolution with her fear after a couple of months, you may want to seek professional help--either to work with your daughter directly, or to discuss with you some further strategies you could use.

5. Help her develop skills. As important as overcoming this particular fear, this experience provides an opportunity to help your daughter practice skills which will serve her a lifetime. You can teach her to research her fear, to explore it, to practice facing it, and to develop strategies to help herself feel safe. Research involves things like getting information from other people, or looking around her room, herself, to see if there is anything scary. Practice facing the dark might involve a peek-a-boo game with a blanket where she moves from being in the dark to being in the light using her own control. Developing strategies so she can make herself feel safer might include using a flash light or a little lamp in her room. It could be keeping her bear close to her to help her feel safe. An important part of developing strategies includes inviting her input and ideas. Fears can make you feel vulnerable, but coming up with ideas to deal with them gives you back some of your lost power.

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