Night-time fears and what to do about them
Studies suggest that up to two-thirds of Australian kids are scared of the dark. But why is this fear so prevalent? And what can we do about it?
How common are night-time fears?
Melisandre, the red priestess from Game of Thrones, summed it up well when she declared, “The night is dark and full of terrors.” For our kids, this is less a rhetorical flourish than it is a statement of fact. One study of Australian eight-to sixteen-year-olds found that 64% of them experienced fear around night-time. This figure rose to 73% for girls. For toddlers and preschool-aged children, some anxiety around night-time is almost inevitable.
“Age two is when you first start seeing these fears manifest,” says Kimberley O’Brien, principal psychologist at Sydney’s Quirky Kid clinic. “Separation anxiety is at its peak around then, and it also coincides with the development of a child’s imagination and powers of visual association.” Hence how shadows and innocuous paintings can become objects of grand threat and terror.
Of course, for most kids, the fear is mild and all part of a healthy process of cognitive development. Creating, navigating and resolving fear is an essential component of working out one’s place in the world. Yet the effects this fear can have on a child’s sleeping patterns and anxiety levels—not to mention parental sanity—can be dramatic. If left unchecked it can spiral into night terrors, broader mental distress and even long-term anxiety.
“Fear of the dark itself isn’t particularly worrying,” says O’Brien. “But when it’s not addressed it can lead to insomnia, anxiety and issues like bedwetting and underperformance at school.”
Why do some kids suffer more?
While a fear of the dark may make sense from a cognitive standpoint, why does it become such an enduring issue for so many children (and their parents)? Part of the issue may be with Western attitudes towards co-sleeping. The idea that an infant or toddler should have their own room is an exceedingly recent development. One that has been permitted only by the comparative wealth and smaller family units common in industrialised societies. Even today, the majority of young children in non-Western countries will stay in the bed with their parents for years. From the parents’ perspective, forcing a baby to sleep in their own room is almost unthinkable.
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We’re so helpless as babies that being left alone at night would have been tantamount to a death sentence for our primitive forebears. Of course, a child’s instinct is to fear separation from their parents—and a parent’s instinct is to stay close at all times. And there is some evidence to suggest this separation has an effect. A longitudinal study of 900 toddlers in Quebec found that those who slept in their mother’s bed when they were young were less likely to suffer from nightmares in later years.
Still, that may only be part of the story. After all, Western societies hardly have a monopoly on nocturnal anxieties. The dark is a place of threats and demons in almost every culture and mythology. It's a place where the unknown lurks and monsters roam. And even in societies that prioritise co-sleeping, toddlers are usually being ushered into their own beds around the age of two. “Long-term co-sleeping can actually be a risk factor for night-time fears because kids sometimes struggle to transition into their own room,” says O’Brien.
What else contributes to night-time fears?
When O’Brien talks to children about what spurred their fear of the dark, she says the most common response is having been exposed to a “jump scare” in a movie or video game. “For young kids, the boundary between reality and fantasy is very hazy,” says O’Brien. “You ask them to describe what they saw and they do it in the most incredible detail, because to them it’s not an image—it’s actually real.”
Beyond that, evidence suggests there's a relationship between children who are more withdrawn and timid in their daily lives and a fear of the dark—or, more specifically, sleeping alone. A driving factor may also just be that bedtime occurs at the end of the day. A time when the amygdala—the primitive part of the brain tasked with regulating our fight-or-flight response—is tired and less capable of warding off our fears. (If a fear of the dark is interrupting your child’s sleep, this can become a self-fulfilling cycle as they’ll be even more tired the following night.)
How to help a kid conquer their night-time fears
As with so many aspects of child-rearing, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to helping children navigate their nocturnal worries. However, in the face of night terrors and bedtime meltdowns, “it’s a question of giving them whatever they need”, says O’Brien. “Even if that involves letting them sleep in your bed after a nightmare.” Fear is a product of feeling unsafe and, as a parent, you’re the one who can restore your child’s sense of security. To put it another way, tough love probably isn’t going to make the problem go away.
For less intense cases, there are plenty of things to try. O’Brien recommends taking your kids for a walk in the dark, whether that’s through the park behind the house, or out on the street. “You actually see this in some Indigenous cultures, where parents will take children as young as two through the bush at night so that they get familiar with the sounds of the trees and the animals.” There’s also a lot to be said for a gentle nightlight and teddy. A 2012 study found that children who were given a “huggy puppy” to sleep with had fewer nightmares and reported less night-time anxiety.
A fear of the dark is normal
In general, though, O’Brien is at pains to reassure parents that a fear of the dark is nothing to worry about. “In most cases, it’s just a developmental phase.” While it might take a few weeks or months (or potentially even years) to resolve, the feeling will eventually ebb. “As a family, you need to decide how long you’re willing to deal with a return to co-sleeping, or a new and perhaps lengthier bedtime routine,” says O’Brien. However, it’s when the fear starts causing serious sleep disruptions, behavioural battles and bedwetting that it can warrant more active intervention.
In these kinds of cases, O’Brien counsels a “gradual decrease of dependence.” This is where you build a step-by-step plan with your child that sees them getting closer and closer to sleeping by themselves. “That might start with you sitting by the bed while they go to sleep, and then moving your chair towards the door over the space of a few weeks.” The key to these programs is consistency and praise—don’t be above offering rewards when your kids reach big milestones.
At the end of the day, says O’Brien, it’s about listening to your child and trying to understand where they’re coming from. “Kids often struggle to express this fear to their parents, but more often than not there’s a distinct trigger.” This could be the drain in the bathroom (thank you, Stephen King’s IT), or a certain painting or a gate that won’t lock. “It might take a bit of detective work, but once you’ve isolated the trigger you can validate their fear and then work on devising fun and playful strategies that will allow you to combat it together.”