What Not to Do: When Your Child Fears the Dark

Cozy in my soft blanket, I let go until dawn’s first light. Expecting a good night of sleep to renew and exhilarate me.

That is, until someone wakes me up. I startle at the sight of my youngest child, standing by my bed. He looks at me through half-opened eyes in the dark night. He tells me, “I’m here.”

I reach out to check his forehead for any signs of a fever, as I ask him “Are you sick?” My son replies quietly, “No, can I sleep with you?” I am groggy with the desire to drift peacefully back to sleep. After a pause, I pull him up onto our bed, and respond with, “Okay, just this once.”

Fear Grows in the Dark

This began a month long struggle of my 3-year-old son waking me up in the middle of the night. My child, who began sleeping through the night at 7-weeks-old was no longer sleeping soundly. He was suddenly afraid of the dark.

After several nights of trying to coax him to stay all night in his own bed, I was growing weary and frustrated. When I’m tired, I get much less effective as a parent. I mistakenly thought I could plead, beg, and remind him to sleep in his own bed.

Have you ever begged your kid to solve their own problems? It doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s not what you do as a parent, it’s what you don’t do that fosters problem solving. (It took me several weeks to remember this, and I’m the “expert.”)

Pick on a Problem and It Will Grow

First, I did research on children who fear the dark. We went to the library and checked out loads of books on the topic. One of my favorite children’s book is The Monster Who Ate the Darkness  by Joyce Dunbar.

It’s about a little monster who is lonely, so he eats up all the darkness, hidden and seen. But no one can sleep, including a little boy who is afraid of the dark. The monster decides to release the darkness back into the world. In doing so, he finds comfort in covering the little boy in a blanket of darkness. Peaceful sleep is found in the cradle of darkness’ arms.

Second, I tried reassuring my son with my wisdom and wit. Reminding him that there are fun things about being in the dark, like lightning bugs, campfires, and flashlight tag. All my reassurance and research wasn’t working, he was still convinced that something scary creeps into his room at night.

The more I fretted about not getting a good night’s sleep, the more I tried to be responsible for abolishing my son’s fear. I had forgotten that fear is normal, and it can pass. That is, if I can stop picking at it!

The Choice That Liberates Fears

The more I took care of his fear, the more he needed me. I discovered a choice that liberated me from being held hostage to his fear. The choice not to be responsible for his sleep. Instead, I can manage my sleep deprived self.

I began defining myself, instead of defining my son. I stopped laying down with him. And, I stopped letting him lay down in our bed. Instead, I told him, “you can’t sleep in mommy’s bed.” When he showed up after dark, I reassured him that he is safe, and quickly took him back to his bed.

While it took him a month to realize he is safe in his room at night, he now proudly boasts, “I am not afraid of the dark now.” It seems the less “helpful” I am, the more my kids help themselves.

Children Are Not As Fragile As We Think

We want the best for our children, but sometimes doing for them undercuts their growth. Treat others as capable, and they will eventually shine their way through the dark.

When do you not do something for your child?

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Photo Credit: “Dreaming Children” by Raul A

7 responses to “What Not to Do: When Your Child Fears the Dark

  1. So true, Marci. It takes a while to realize that children are not as fragile as we think. The tricky part for me as a parent is remembering to check my instinct to protect — to making a distinction between protecting and handicapping. It’s rare that I’ve had to protect my son from any real danger. Letting him figure things out on his own does so much more good for his curiosity, confidence and self-esteem than me getting involved and taking over every little thing.

    • I hear you. I imagine we all work on sorting out when is helping, really helping and when is it hindering. I’m sure you are doing great!

  2. The more we allow our kids to do for themselves, the more their confidence and sense of competency grows. One of the hardest things for us as parents to do is step back and watch our kids struggle in their effort to do something. But when kids actually do it, the sense of pride they feel is priceless. And that’s what build’s self-esteem and a sense of competency. We must resist the urge to always jump in and do for them. Many times, less is more. We think the more we ‘do’ for our kids, the better parent we are. But doing ‘for’ is not the same as guiding and encouraging and permitting the struggle which then yields the good feeling of accomplishment. There’s nothing better than hearing that 4 year old exclaim, “I did it myself.”
    The term used a lot now is ‘helicopter parents’, who are on call to swoop down and rescue. Protecting them from mistakes and consequences is not giving them the opportunities to learn coping skills. Think what our goal is for raising our children ; if it’s to raise independent, competent adults, then we start now with instilling the skills and emotional strength to get there.

    • Yes, it is great to hear our kids exclaim being proud of handling something on their own. My daughter is great at reminding me to back off and let her figure something out. I’m so grateful that being independent is wired in; that is, the will to be as independent as we can be. I know my kids learn from me, the good, the bad, the ugly, the strong, the not so great.

  3. What can I say is you’re such a good mom, I’m sure your son is proud of you. God bless your family.

  4. Pingback: When Helping Hinders Child’s Wings From Growing | Liberating Choices