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Child Afraid of the Dark

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Taken from: Growing Concerns- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Question: Several times lately our 4-year-old has gotten all worked up at night, claiming there's a monster under his bed. He says he's afraid to be alone in his room. Is this cause for concern? How can we help him get over these fears?

Answer: What you describe is not at all unusual. For many reasons, young children get frightened when they're alone, especially at night and in the dark. They often imagine all sorts of scary creatures in the closet or under the bed. Very young children can't separate reality from fantasy, and when they can't see what's around them, their vivid imaginations go to work. The frightening images that surround our children on television and film may also feed into these fears.

* These images are not all fantasy. Actual news stories of children being abused or kidnapped can erode the security of children of all ages. It is also common for ordinary stress and anxiety to bubble up at night. When children can't name what's making them uneasy, it may come out as fear of imagined creatures.

* Such fears become cause for serious concern only when they go on long enough or are so intense that they interfere significantly with the child's sleep or ability to play and learn during the day. In that case, it would be wise to consider whether he has experienced something traumatic and seek professional counseling if needed.

For now, here are a few tips on how to help your son master these fears so you all can rest easily:

* Take your son's fears seriously, without overreacting. It is important not to dismiss or ridicule his fears. Hear his feelings and reflect them back to him with words: "I can see you're really scared."

* Reassure him that you are there to make sure he is safe. Offer comfort as needed, and demonstrate to him that there's nothing frightening in his room. This may mean turning on the light in his closet or looking under the bed to show him that everything is fine.

* Over time, help him master his fears by reading or making up stories about little boys and their monsters (Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" was a favorite at our house). Or join him in an imaginative play and act out monster stories. For example, he could pretend to be the monster and you could be the child who tells the monster to either start being nice or go someplace else. Or your son could be the parent reassuring his stuffed animal or doll that he will keep them safe.

Finally, see through your child's eyes by remembering your own childhood. What used to frighten you? And what did you find comforting at those times? As with so many aspects of parenting, our own childhood memories often yield the best information on how to care for our children.

The Children, Youth and Family Consortium invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 3 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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