Why Your Child is Afraid: Nightmares, Darkness and Ghosts

Your child has just begun to sleep the night through (without any bed-wetting incidents) and you’re looking forward to doing the same after years of disturbed-sleep nights. A ear-piercing scream shatters your illusions. Your child has had a nightmare, and you are back in the nightmarish world of waking up again and again in the middle of the night to soothe your child.

Apparently, of all human beings, children in the age group 5 – 9 are the ones most prone to nightmares. Also, the incidence of nightmares amongst children in this age group is very high – often more than once a week.

Nightmares leave a child feeling insecure, scared, and sometimes paralyzed with fear. As your child begins to understand fear, he begins to fear the feeling of fear.

Franklin D. Roosevelt put it well when he said in his first inaugural address in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes…”

Where does this fear come from? I believe it comes from two sources.

The first is that your child begins to realize in a practical manner that you (the parent) are a separate person from him.  Not only are you a separate body, but you have a separate heart and a separate mind. He realizes that you think, feel and respond differently to people and situations than he does. He wonders if he has sufficient ‘hold’ on you; he wonders whether some day the differences may not become so great that you separate from each other.

Till today, your presence meant food, security, shelter, love; his whole life is wrapped up in you. Since he has associated so closely and deeply with you, he finds it hard to believe that he can live separately from you. So he begins to fear separation from you. This is one kind (and source) of fear.

The other is the fear that you put into your child. Oh yes, you do! As you try to civilize your child, prepare him for socialization, teach him the ‘rules’ of polite society, you use fear as a tool. In some cases, it may be as obvious as: “If you don’t eat your food and get into bed quickly, the Scary Monster will come and get you!” You may think this is a bit of a joke. Your child doesn’t. He is too young to understand the difference between reality and fantasy. Every experience is new and fantastic to him (fantastic in the sense of fantasy-like). You are jaded and blasé about bath showers and dogs on the street and blowing bubbles and clouds and raindrops and shiny toys and sticky mud; he is not. It is all new, all exciting, and all fantasy to him.

So your joke of a Scary Monster is a real-life Scary Monster to him. The Monster may be so scary that you don’t even want to describe him! This creates yet another problem. If you say the Scary Monster has green teeth, then any person or animal or creature that does not have green teeth is automatically not the Scary Monster. But if there is no clarity on what makes the Scary Monster scary, then anyone and anything could be the Scary Monster!

You can also induce fear in your child using subtle means. As he grows, you want to control and channel his excitement into the ‘right’ paths. You don’t really want him looking at cloud shapes for hours every day – unless it helps his artistic skills. You don’t want her poking around in messy mud – unless she’s showing signs of becoming a sculptor.

So you manipulate your child’s behavior. You say, “If you keep looking at the clouds, you will ‘waste’ so much time! Instead, you could be doing ‘fun’ things, like playing in the park, solving a jigsaw, reading a book.” If he listens, well and good. If not, you begin to withdraw from him. You frown. You clearly express your displeasure, you withdraw or withhold your approval of him. More separation – more fear.

You may disagree with me. You may say, “At times, you have to teach a child to feel some fear.” I understand what you’re saying.

 At first, your child is not afraid of anything. She will happily climb onto the balcony railing and jump off the fourth storey – down to the ground. She would do this because she simply doesn’t know enough to be afraid of how many bones she will break when she falls. In order to keep her safe, you feel you have to teach her the feeling of fear.

How will you stop her running across a busy road? You need to tell her that if she does that, some vehicle may hit her. She will hurt herself and it will cause her physical pain. You can’t explain to her that running across the road might kill her because she won’t understand the concept of death.

So you start teaching her fear.

As your child gets on with the business of living and growing, as he meets other people (children and parents), watches, listens, reads, plays, thinks, imagines and understands, he begins to knit together different thoughts and sensations. The worst ones come together as fears, and they are expressed in nightmares.

So your child is screaming with fear, and you’ve rushed to attend to him. You hold him, pat him or caress him, and say, “It’s nothing. Don’t worry. Everything is fine. You’re safe. There are no monsters, there’s nothing to be afraid of – it’s only darkness.”

This is a meaningless string of words, but you will always say this – without fail. 🙂 (I know, because this was my first reaction for so many years!)

I ask you: if you are unwell and you feel you have all the symptoms of some dreaded disease and you’re sharing your fears with me and I say to you, “Don’t worry. Everything’s fine. You’ll be okay.”

Would you believe me? I doubt it. I don’t think you’d even listen till I reach the end of the words. You’d have switched off, because the very fact that I was responding this way meant I wasn’t listening when you were sharing your fears.

Your child’s fears are real. As far as she is concerned, the darkness is a real entity that she is actively scared of. She’s telling you she’s frightened of it, and you react by saying there is nothing to be scared of! This is a ridiculous reaction on your part. Natural, but no less ridiculous for being natural.

So stifle your natural reaction for a while. Your child is scared. Indulge her.

Here’s a possible scenario between a child and a parent:

Child: I’m scared!

Parent: What scared you?

Child: The dark! I woke up and couldn’t see anything!

Parent (instead of saying “There’s nothing to be afraid of in the darkness”): You were scared because you couldn’t see?

Child: Because it was dark.

Parent: But at night, before you went to bed, it was dark outside! You weren’t scared then.

Child: I wasn’t scared because I could see things – even if it was dark outside.

Parent: When we play peek-a-boo, or hide-and-seek, or blind-man’s-buff, you need to close your eyes for a while. Do you feel scared then? After all, you can’t see anything if your eyes are closed.

Your child will respond. Carry the conversation forward – step by step. Don’t force your point of view. Listen and respond to what your child is saying. As you engage your child in conversation, you will show him a logical way of looking at things. This will not remove the fear, but it will move the focus of the conversation away from the fear. Your child will begin to calm down.

As you keep talking calmly to your child, the sound of your voice will further soothe him. If you have switched the light on, the removal of darkness will dispel the ghosts or monsters or other things he fears. Keep holding him. If he doesn’t want to leave you, either get into his bed or take him into bed with you.

Don’t worry that you’re encouraging indiscipline. Unless he’s at peace, he won’t go back to sleep, and you won’t be able to go back to sleep either. In which case, it hardly matters whether he’s awake in his bed or in yours. 

Let him drift back to sleep. Now it’s your call whether you want to put him back in his bed or stay with him.

In the next post, I’ll share tips on what you can do over the long haul to help your child get over these fears.

7 Responses to Why Your Child is Afraid: Nightmares, Darkness and Ghosts

  1. vinita upreti December 19, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    Kudos for the article…the comprehension and approach to fear is commendable….one little bit I wanted to share….is that children in this age bracket are very pure and impressionable…the story of the elephant and the blind men can explain quite some situations of fear among children…but one must also give thought to this little possibility that often pure souls can (in sleep condition)..can perceive and respond to subtle vibrations and presences around them….memories and visions of erstwhile existences and experiences also floats in and out of their subconsciousness…..which might startle them and scare them….in fact children are sensitive enough to catch vibration of discord in between parents as in the case of violent or negative undercurrents within family relationships too …so as parents we must not treat any case of fear with ridicule or underplay the effect of the atmosphere we create within our homes …whether real time or imaginary….on a child’s psyche…..I may sound dated but it is out of experience that i share…………..
    keep up the great writing….

    • Vinita Zutshi December 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

      Vinita, if such thinking is dated, then I’m dated too. I couldn’t agree more with you – in fact, I’ve written about parents trying to hide discord between themselves from their children in my post “When Parents Fight”. Thanks for sharing, and yes, the only things we can really share is ourselves and our experiences. Really appreciate your comments. Keep them coming! 🙂

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