(cue suspenseful music)
It’s 2:00 AM, you’re sleeping peacefully in your bed, and you suddenly wake up, not entirely sure why, but as you start to gain awareness of your surroundings, you become aware, to your horror, that there’s someone in the room with you! You hear the sound of their voice, and they whisper those four words that chill every parent to the bone:
“Mom, I can’t sleep.”
When and why are kids afraid of the dark?
Fear of the dark usually starts to show up around the 2-year mark. As toddler’s minds mature, their memory gets longer and their imagination develops. They’ve almost certainly taken a spill on the playground or had some kind of traumatic incident by this point, so they’re aware that there are things out there that can hurt them. They’ve also probably seen a few movies or been read a few books that touch on a couple of spooky or eerie elements, even if they’re geared towards children. Where the Wild Things Are, for all of its charm, gave me a serious case of the willies when I was a toddler.
As adults, we’re experienced enough to recognize that the dark isn’t inherently dangerous, (although if your toddler has a tendency to leave Legos lying around, you might argue to the contrary.) But for a toddler, there’s no history to draw on to assure them that they’re safe and secure after the lights go out.
The fear is real
My first and most important piece of advice when you’re addressing your little one’s fear of the dark is this... Don’t slough it off.
This can be a bit of a tricky landscape to navigate. On the one hand, we absolutely want to show empathy and understanding when something frightens our kids. On the other, we don’t want to add fuel to the fire.
I’m a big believer in not lying to our kids. Sure, they don’t need to know everything, but establishing an honest and open relationship starts as soon as they can communicate with you. This is why I’m not a big fan of “monster repellent” or nightly closet checks.
Why? Well, consider this scenario:
that there’s an intruder in your house, rationally or not, your concern is real. You mention it to your spouse, who hands you a can of pepper spray and looks around the room, says, “Nope, I don’t see anyone. Anyways, I’m headed out for the night! Have a good sleep!”
I mean, you might not file for divorce on the spot, but you’d consider it, right?
So when we tell our kids, “Nope! No monsters here! Not that I noticed, anyway, so you’re all good, let’s spray the room so they don’t come for a visit anyway” it’s not nearly as soothing as you might think. It’s easy to see how they could interpret that as, “Yeah, there’s absolutely such a thing as monsters, they’re scary as hell, and they do tend to live in kids’ closets and under the beds, but I don’t see one in there at the moment, so... y’know. Sleep tight!”
Hadn’t thought of it like that, had you? I hadn’t either until I was discussing such a fear with my now 7 year old (she was 5 at the time) and man, mind blown!! Kids are so insightful and we can learn so much from them.
Bottom line, don’t slough off their fear. Don’t go straight for the “Monster Checks” or “Monster Spray.”
Ok, but what should I do instead?
That covers what I consider to be the not great way to handle the situation. How about some advice on a better one?
As I was saying earlier, dismissing your little one’s fears as irrational or unfounded isn’t all that helpful, so ask some questions when they express a fear of the dark. Digging into their concerns is helpful in a couple of ways. It lets them know that you’re taking them seriously, which is very reassuring. It also helps you to assess what it is about the darkness that frightens them and helps you to address it.
For example, if they tell you they’re seeing things moving around their room, it might be caused by shadows. Headlights from cars driving by can often shine enough light through curtains or blinds to throw shadows across the room. Coupled with a toddler’s imagination, that can create some seriously intimidating scenes. In that situation, a nightlight or some blackout blinds can prove to be a quick, effective solution. Keep reading for more ideas (including my favorite!).
(Tip: If you’re going to use a nightlight, make sure it’s a warm color. Blue lights may look soothing but they stimulate cortisol production, which is the last thing we want at bedtime.)
Now, that’s a bit of a Utopian scenario. As you’re likely already aware, getting a clear, concise answer from a toddler about anything is tricky. To a toddler, “Paw Patrol” is a reasonable answer to, “What do you want for lunch?” So you’re likely going to have to work with slightly more obscure information. But, we’re showing concern and empathizing which goes a long way here.
Facing the fear through play and exploration
For a lot of toddlers, bedtime is the only time of the day that they’re left alone. They’re either playing with friends, hanging close to their parents, or supervised in some way, shape, or form by a grown-up. Bedtime is also the only time they’re exposed to darkness, so you can see how the two things together could easily cause some anxiety.
The obvious (and super fun!) way to ease some of that apprehension is to spend some time together in the dark! Reading books under a blanket with a dim flashlight is a great activity. Some hide and seek with the lights out is tons of fun as well, just as long as you clear any tripping hazards out of the area you’re going to be playing in. My favorite - Shadow puppets! These are a great time, even though I’m personally terrible at them. Hide-and-Clap is a classic (but if you’ve ever seen The Conjuring, you’ll know why it might leave you with nightmares as opposed to your toddler!). A quick Google search will load you up with dozens of ideas, so pick two or three that you think your child will like, then let them choose one.
You can do these during the day to help assist when things are not as threatening. Puppet shadows is still among my 7 year old’s favorite bedtime activity. It doesn’t have to be pitch black. We just want to get some positive associations with low-light situations.
One last little tip, turning down the lights gradually as your little one’s bedtime approaches is a good way to ease them into a dark setting, and also helps to stimulate melatonin production, which will help them get to sleep easier. Two birds, one stone. Parenting level: Master.
This isn’t likely to be an overnight fix, but stay respectful, stay calm, and stay consistent. After your little one’s fears have been addressed and they’ve learned that the darkness is more fun than frightening, you’ll start seeing more consolidated sleep and less visits in the middle of the night.