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Afraid of the dark? Anke Klein: 'Let your child have a say in finding a solution'

On Sunday night 25 September, all the lights in Leiden will switch off and we will see the starry sky above us twinkling in all its glory. A unique opportunity for all residents of Leiden to experience the vastness of the cosmos and view the impressive artwork that hangs over our heads every night. Many children don't like that darkness at all. What can parents do if their child is afraid of the dark?

Seeing Stars is an exciting collaborative project by artist Daan Roosegaarde, UNESCO and the municipality of Leiden, but perhaps a little too exciting for some young residents. Developmental psychologist Anke Klein is co-founder of the Knowledge Centre for Anxiety and Stress in Youth and has an important piece of advice for parents: "Let your child participate in the steps they can take to overcome their fear."

How common is fear of the dark in children, approximately?

"With anxiety, we distinguish between an anxiety disorder or phobia and a fear that comes with development. Basically, fear of the dark is quite normal and almost all children find the dark unpleasant. In fact, in children aged between 3 and 5, fear of the dark is one of the most common fears.

Something only becomes an anxiety disorder or a specific phobia when it significantly limits development and prevents the child from doing things that are important or fun. For example, if a 9-year-old child does not dare to go to a sleepover because there the lights will go out. When all the other children don't find that scary and do it, it can feel very unpleasant. A specific phobia, which includes fear of the dark, impacts 10 per cent of children."

"From an evolutionary perspective, fear of the dark makes perfect sense"

What is this fear caused by?

"First of all, fear of the dark makes perfect evolutionary sense; you see very little and therefore don't know if you are safe. It is an intrinsic party of our natural setup to scan our surroundings for potential danger and this is not as easy in the dark. There's also a genetic component, which could mean that a child might find certain things a little more scary than others. How you, as a parent, talk to your child also matters. If a parent says: "You shouldn't walk down the street in the dark because scary men lurk there", the child might draw the conclusion: Oh, so apparently the dark is dangerous. So you can see how fear arises in different ways."

Anke Klein
Of course, your child may say they are afraid of the dark, but are there other signs you can look out for as a parent?

"You can often see it in children's behaviour, for example that a child withdraws, cries, is sad or, on the contrary, screams or yells leading up to bedtime. In younger children who cannot yet express themselves well verbally, you can see that they sometimes get a stomachache or headache. Other physical reactions, such as trembling or pants-wetting, can also indicate anxiety."

This Sunday, the lights go out in Leiden. Perhaps there are parents who do not want to participate because it stirs up their child's anxiety. What do you advise them to do?

"One of the most important things is to stop avoiding the situation; by doing so you often perpetuate fear. Therefore, also tell in time that this is about to happen, don't let it come as a surprise. Explain why it is important to do this together and, for example, print out a star chart so you can stargaze together.

Always take your child's fears seriously. Do not say "What difference does it make?" or, "Everyone turns off the lights, what are you whining about?" Ask questions and be open with your child, ask what the child is experiencing and what they are afraid of. While doing so, also give examples of things that you are scared of yourself. Everyone is afraid of something, and this way your child will realise that it is okay to be afraid. Normalise it, because it is part of life.

"Put the child in control of what he dares or does not dare to do"

In addition, I recommend always give the control to your child. If you say, "We're going to turn off the lights now, period," you take control away from the child and the anxiety often gets worse. Instead, ask, "What is one way for you that we can do this?" In this case, for example, that would be allowing a candle to be lit, which children usually find cosy. Discuss whether it might be an idea not to turn off the lights all at once, but gently one by one. Or maybe it helps if your child gets a flash light that he or she can switch on when things get too stressful. Let your child have a say in this, children are often very inventive in finding creative solutions."

And what if that doesn't work?

"Then get help in time. At the Knowledge Centre for Anxiety and Stress, we answer the phone five days a week and can offer tools to deal with anxiety and stress. Especially with specific fears in children, we can often help reduce anxiety quickly. It may also be that we recommend waiting it out, but even that confirmation can be nice.

"You don't have to be perfect at everything as a parent"

By the way, what we see a lot, and what I also experience myself as a parent, is that there is a kind of awkwardness when your child does not yet dare to do something that other children do. It helps here as a parent to be aware of your own emotion. For example, if all the children are happily jumping in the pool during swimming lessons and your child is glued to your lap, you may feel embarrassed. After all, you want to be accepted by other parents and do well. So one last tip for parents: don't be too hard on yourself. You don't have to be perfect at everything as a parent. Sometimes a child really isn't ready for something or just wants to sit on your lap for a little while longer."

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