Archive for Saturday, November 2, 2002

s fear

November 2, 2002


My child is afraid of the dark. How can I lessen this fear?

I consulted with another mother who was also worried about her 3-year-old daughter's fear of the dark. Maybe her story will be helpful to you. Despite the use of a night-light and leaving the bedroom door open, Marla was afraid to stay in her room alone. She insisted that her mother sit with her until she went to sleep each evening, which became very time-consuming and inconvenient. If Marla happened to awaken in the night, she would call for help. It was apparent that the child was not bluffing; she was genuinely frightened.

Fears such as this are not innate characteristics in the child; they have been learned. Parents must be very careful in expressing their own fears because their youngsters are inclined to adopt those same anxieties. For that matter, good-natured teasing can also produce problems for a child. If a youngster walks into a dark room and is pounced upon from behind the door, he has learned something from the joke: The dark is not always empty!

In Marla's case, it is unclear where she learned to fear the dark, but I believe her mother inadvertently magnified the problem. In her concern for Marla, she conveyed her anxiety, and the child began to think that her fears must be justified. "Even Mother is worried about it." The fright became so great that Marla could not walk through a dimly lit room without an escort. It was at this point that the child was referred to me.

I suggested that the mother use a process known as "extinction" to change Marla's pattern of fear. She needed to help her see that there was nothing to be afraid of. (It is usually fruitless to try to talk a child out of fears, but it helps to show that you are confident and unthreatened in response to them.) The mother bought a package of stars and created a chart that showed how a new CD player could be "earned." Then she placed her chair just outside Marla's bedroom door. Marla was offered a star if she could spend a short time (10 seconds) in her bedroom with the light on and the door open.

This first step was not very threatening, and Marla enjoyed the game. It was repeated several times; then she was asked to walk a few feet into a slightly darkened room with the door still open while Mother (clearly visible in the hall) counted to 10. She knew she could come out immediately if she wished. Mother talked confidently and quietly. The length of time in the dark was gradually lengthened, and instead of producing fear, it produced stars and eventually a CD player  a source of pleasure for a small child. Courage was being reinforced; fear was being extinguished. The cycle of fright was thereby broken, being replaced by a healthier attitude.

Extinction may be useful in helping your own child overcome her fear of the dark. In summary, the best method of changing a learned behavior is to withhold its reinforcement while rewarding its replacement.

You have described the nature of willfully defiant behavior and how parents should handle it. But does all unpleasant behavior result from rebellion and disobedience?

No. Defiance can be very different in origin from the "challenging" response I've been describing. A child's negativism may be caused by frustration, disappointment, fatigue, illness or rejection. Therefore, it must be interpreted as a warning signal to be heeded. Perhaps the toughest task in parenthood is to recognize the difference between these behavioral messages. A child's resistant behavior always contains a message to his parents, which they must decode before responding.

For example, a disobedient youngster may be saying, "I feel unloved now that I'm stuck with that screamin' baby brother. Mom used to care for me; now nobody wants me. I hate everybody." When this kind of message underlies the defiance, the parents should move quickly to pacify its cause. The art of good parenthood, then, revolves around the interpretation of behavior.

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