Q: Because our four-year-old son has become very afraid of shadows, we have to leave a couple of lights on all night — not just a night light. To reassure him, we have said that shadows can’t hurt you, they aren’t ghosts or monsters, and he should try telling the things that scare him to “get out of my house.” Do you have any other suggestions?
A: It’s quite normal for children your son’s age to feel afraid of the dark. But telling him that shadows are not like ghosts and monsters may not be as reassuring as you think because you are implying there really are such things as fearsome ghosts and monsters. Up to age six, children still have difficulty telling the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary, so your son still needs you to remind him that ghosts and monsters aren’t real. This is especially true at bedtime when he faces the also scary proposition of separating from you.
Talk to him to see if his fear of the dark is an expression of other worries, such as his parents dying, or separating from each other. Let him know you take his worries seriously and that it’s OK to feel afraid and to reach out for help — otherwise, he might think there is something wrong with him, and he may also have difficulty trusting others to help him.
You can reinforce your role as your son’s protector by letting him know you would not allow him to sleep anywhere that wasn’t safe. If you haven’t already, you will also want to restrict your son’s viewing of scary characters in TV shows, movies and cartoons.
It may also help to put your son to bed with a soothing story, song or conversation. Consider giving him a flashlight or put a lamp by his bed so he can turn it on whenever he needs to prove to himself nothing is there. Or you can continue to leave the lights on all night — until your son lets you know it’s OK to turn them off because he’s no longer scared.
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