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Fear of the Dark

Helping Children Cope With Fears Through Story and Crafts

"Round the corner came a big freight train ."

Tommy's eyes drooped and closed. His father had just finished reading him a book, telling him a story and was now singing a train song. Tommy's eyelids fluttered. Tommy was asleep and dreaming.

Dad left the room, closing the door. He smiled. With Tommy asleep, he had some time to read the paper and maybe watch the news before collapsing into bed himself.

Light from the hall drifted under Tommy's door and made strange shadows on the wall. Tommy's eyes popped open. He looked around. "Dark," said Tommy. "I don't like dark." His eyes fixed on a shadow creeping up his wall.

Holding his faithful stuffed dog Spot, Tommy slid his leg from under the blanket. When his foot touched the floor, a board squeaked. It always squeaked, but in the dark it was louder. He pulled his leg back in under the blanket and did what he always did in this situation. "DAAAD! MOOOM!"

His father laid down his paper and headed for Tommy's room. "Yes?"

"It's too dark in here! And there's something over by the wall!"

Dad stepped into the room and closed the door. He sat on the edge of Tommy's bed. "Is this how the room looked?" asked Dad.

Tommy nodded. "Look," he said pointing at the shadow creeping up the wall. "What's that?"

Dad stood up and walked to the shadow. "Looks like a shadow." He stood between the door and the shadow. The shadow changed.

"You changed it!" yelled Tommy.

"You can too," said Dad. He sat on Tommy's bed. "You walk over to the shadow."

"No!" said Tommy.

"OK, will you walk to the door?"

Tommy smiled. The door is where Tommy wanted to be anyway. Like before, the floor squeaked when he stepped on it, but Tommy didn't notice.

"Stand in front of the door and look at the shadow."

Tommy did. The shadow changed. "Hey, I changed it!"

"How did you change it?" asked Dad.

Tommy looked down at his feet. He lifted his left foot. The shadow changed. He put his left foot down and lifted his right. The shadow changed again. Tommy laughed. He began to jump from foot to foot watching the shadow dance on the wall.

"OK," said Dad. "Back to bed."

Tommy got quiet. "Daddy, I'm still afraid of the dark."

"How about if I leave the door open about halfway," said Dad. "Like this." His father pulled the door open, but stayed in the room. "See anything spooky?"

Tommy looked around. There were still shadows on the wall.

Tommy pointed. "Can I find out what those are?" His dad nodded.

Tommy jumped out of bed and headed for the door. Standing in front of it, he made the shadows change. One particularly tall shadow with arms still bothered him. "I can't make that one change enough," said Tommy.

"I think it's this bear; try moving it."

Tommy did and the shadow went away. "So that's what it was! Silly bear." He climbed back under the covers.

"What are some things you like about nighttime, Tommy?"

"I like the stars and the crickets chirping in our backyard. I like the sound of the frogs at Grandma's house."

"Me, too. Goodnight, Tommy." He bent and kissed him on the head.

Tommy looked around the room. He knew about the shadows now and knew he could make them dance if he wanted to. "Goodnight, Daddy."

The next day they went to the store and bought a recording of the night sounds Tommy liked. Tommy helped his dad cut out stars and planets from some cardboard and paint them with glow-in-the-dark paint. They changed the ceiling of his room into a beautiful nighttime sky. As they worked, they listened to the frogs and the crickets and the wind and the rain coming out of the CD player in Tommy's room.

That night, after changing all the shadows and moving his bear, Tommy looked at the stars, listened to the crickets and slept. He woke up once, but the stars smiled down at him and the frogs told him to go back to sleep.

Dad finished his newspaper.

Nyctophobia. Scary word, huh? Parents fear big words like that especially when the doctor is referring to their child. How about verbophobia? Verbophobia is the fear of words. Here's a way to control

that fear: Look the word up and understand what it means.

Nyctophobia is the fear of the dark. The dark is a very real and very common fear for children between the ages of 4 to 6. Exhausted mothers and fathers are positive there is no monster hiding in the dark room. The child is just as positive there is something. Just like the parent who looks up the meaning of a word and comes to understand it, a child's fear of the dark can be handled the same way.

Tommy's dad did several things right:

  • He didn't make fun of the fear. According to Dr. Betti Hertzberg Ressler, board certified pediatrician at Miami Children's Hospital, parents should avoid phrases like "only babies are scared of the dark."
  • Dad did not look to see if something was hiding in the darkness. By actually looking, a parent can convince the child that something might actually have been there.
  • By giving Tommy a bit of power over his environment (making the shadows dance), Tommy gained confidence.
  • Tommy stayed in his own room. Letting him leave could create anotherbothersome problem.
  • Leaving the door open and discussing the things that Tommy did enjoy about the nighttime were the beginnings of the end of Tommy's fear of being alone in his dark bedroom.

A low-wattage nightlight will make a child's room less dark.

Music,storytelling or ambient sounds will make the room less lonely. Adding the stars, planets, galaxies and comets to a child's ceiling can be a creative way to give the room a bit of light as well and a way to eventually turn off the nightlight. Stars can be purchased as sets or created. If you purchase a ready-made set, follow the directions on the package, or make your own:

  1. Cut the star shapes out of bright white cardboard and paint the cutouts with the glow-in-the-dark paint available at craft stores or over the Internet. The paint will be virtually invisible in the daytime. Attach the cutouts to the ceiling so they can be removed when the time comes (rubber cement or sticky-backed Velcro for instance).

  2. Or actually paint the ceiling. A black light allows the paints to be seen in the daytime. This method should probably be attempted by the artistically talented or very brave. Stencils are a safer way to be sure something that looks like a star is being painted on the ceiling.

A star-studded ceiling and a bit of background sound may be the magic ticket to a full night's sleep. It might not. But the child's room will no longer be as empty as it was, and it will be a much friendlier place to sleep.

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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