By: Frank McGinty
“I’m at my wits’ end. I just don’t know what to do with her.”
This comment came, not from a parent whose teenage daughter was causing havoc, but from one whose teenager was still experiencing fear of the dark. And the problem was getting worse rather than better.
The fear was also affecting the girl’s school life. She lacked confidence in herself, was exceptionally timid, and was easily threatened by new experiences. A parenting nightmare!
Yet our kids have very few fears when they are born. Fear of falling and fear of loud noises are the main ones, and the rest are learned as they grow older.
A conversation with the mother soon revealed that the girl had “always had a fear of the dark”, but the mother was less forthcoming when asked how she and her husband had addressed the situation. Apparently, it had been a case of ignore it and it will go away; she’ll soon grow out of it. After all, they didn’t want their daughter to become a ‘softie’, someone who needed attention and help at every turn.
Yet that’s exactly the type of child they raised.
If a fear is neglected like this, the chances are it will grow and may even require specialist help. The girl in question received such help. But what can be done to ensure fears don’t reach that stage, thereby avoiding a life of misery?
Selma Fraiberg in her classic book, The Magic Years, said: “The future mental health of the child does not depend on the presence or absence of ogres in his fantasy life. It depends on the child’s solution to the ogre problem.”
And the child’s solution will depend very much on the parent’s solution!
Anger, impatience, anxiety, concern – all these reinforce fear
Repressing a fear will bury it and allow it to grow. Fears love the dark.
Comfort, reassurance, calmness, humour, friendliness, affection – all these help dispel fears.
But what exactly is the child afraid of? And why do fears usually develop around the ages of 2 -3?
At that stage children become aware that the world is not the safe haven they thought it was. As they explore this vast new adventure, with all its exciting possibilities, they soon learn that the universe does not revolve around them. Everyone and everything does not defer to them. This can be both hurtful and frightening.
Fears then start to build in the child’s mind. They learn about death and injury and suffering. And the imagination translates these fears into ogres and monsters. Some children are more sensitive than others, and their imaginations really run wild.
Unwittingly, some parents reinforce these fears by drawing on folk tales or religious imagery as a means of gaining control.
“Behave or the bogeyman will get you.”
“The devil will come for you if you are bad.”
These attempts almost always backfire and scare the child rigid!
It’s one thing to teach a child about evil in the world and the need to avoid it, but it’s another to cause the kid to worry about devil-like creatures lurking in every shadow, waiting to pounce and carry them off to hell!
What practical steps can be taken to zap fear of the dark once and for all?
Firstly, always take a child’s fears seriously. Never ignore a plea for help
Some parents fear that if they indulge their child’s plea then the child will become a weakling.
As seen in the example above, nothing could be further from the truth. If fears are repressed they can go on causing havoc for a lifetime – quite literally.
Reassurance is the order of the day. How?
Remove whatever is prompting the fear. This could be the absence of light in the bedroom. It could be spooky noises coming from an old water or heating system, it could be curtains fluttering in the dark.
Make the child feel comfortable. Then face up to the fear with him. Show him that there’s nothing under the bed, or go to the window and show him there’s nothing in the backyard.
Let her know that she’s normal! Assure her that everyone feels these fears at her age, and it’s just a reaction to some of the things they’ve heard or seen during the day. Positively affirm that no harm is coming to her, that she is perfectly safe.
Then let them practice being on their own. Leave a night light on. It’s amazing how many parents think this will ‘spoil’ their child.
Well, in my work over the years I’ve seen the result of this approach – that is, kids who lack confidence in almost every area of their lives, whose lives are driven by fear. Tough kids? You must be joking.
No, the fear must be dispelled before it’s had time to worm itself deep into the subconscious and take root. Weed it out before it has time to grow.
Another reservation parents have is that once kids realise they get attention from being afraid of the dark, they’ll play on it. First of all, we must ask ourselves why would our kids need to seek an inordinate amount of attention? Could it be because they have not been getting sufficient attention, for whatever reason? Attention-seeking is always a symptom of a lack. Address the need and the symptom will disappear.
‘But won’t I just be building up a need in my kid for attention at night, and making them dependent on my presence, or a nightlight, or keeping the door open, or having to check on them every five minutes to reassure them?’
This is where trust comes in. You must trust that by constantly reassuring your kids and making them feel relaxed and secure, the demons or ogres will be banished.
And they will. Once that happens then all the above needs will quietly fall away. It may take more time with some kids than with others – but the fears will slip away, and that is vital for a happy, contented, self-assured childhood, and by extension, adulthood.
About the author
Frank McGinty is an internationally published author and teacher.