Lots of pre-schoolers suddenly develop night-time fears of monsters and giant spiders. Here’s how parents can help a child who is scared of the dark.
Has the space under your pre-schooler’s bed, only previously inhabited by the odd dusty sock, suddenly become the home of a terrifying jagged-toothed slime creature? Is there a burglar in the wardrobe and a ghost behind the door ready to pounce once bedtime comes and the lights go out?
At a glance
- Speak to older children and find out their fears
- Leave a light on for reassurance
- A routine may help conquer the fears
Why is my preschooler scared of the dark?
A sudden fear of the dark is very common among two to four-year-olds. It’s no wonder, really. That’s just the time when their imaginations are working overtime playing fantasy games with dinosaurs, monsters and dragons, and it can be hard for them to separate these fantasies from reality.
They’re also learning about the real, potentially frightening things in life like spiders, burglars - or the terrifying prospect of being on your own without mum nearby. And because there are fewer distractions at night to keep their suggestive minds occupied, their fears can run wild.
Be reassured that it’s a phase they pass through, although it can disrupt their sleep (and yours) for a few weeks or months in the meantime.
Here’s how to do deal with it:
- Don’t dismiss your child’s fears as ridiculous (even if they are) or belittle them. Listen to them, take them seriously and say things like ‘yes, I see you’re scared’.
- Try not to say things like ‘you’d better be good or the bogeyman will get you’, even as a joke.
- With older ones, try to find out exactly what it is about the dark that frightens them by asking open questions such as ‘why is the dark scary?’, ‘what do you think could be there when we turn out the lights?’ Getting them to voice their fears will help them face them, and help you come up with solutions.
- Reassure them that you’re there to help them. Keep repeating that there is no such thing as monsters in real life, so they can’t be under the bed. Turn on the light and show them if necessary. But don’t give the fear too much credibility by saying ‘ok, I’ll scare away the radiator monster for you’.
- If it helps them, leave a light on outside the room and/or have a nightlight in their bedroom (although this doesn’t help all children as it tends to throw out shadows).
- Have a calming bedtime routine every night involving bath, stories and cuddles. Avoid cartoons and any even vaguely threatening TV programmes at least an hour before bed. Also avoid scary books with monsters or dragons at bedtime. Some children are helped by a soothing audio book after lights-out.
- Promise them you’ll to come and check on them in 20 minutes and again when you go to bed later on.
- Try not to let your little one come into your bed to sleep as it doesn’t help them deal with their fears. Gently bring them back to their bed, and keep reassuring them. If bed-hopping is already a problem, you could use a sticker chart – they get a sticker if they manage to stay in their bed for the whole night, with a prize after a week.
- Visit your library and get out books on the topic: we love 'The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark' by Jill Tomlinson.