How can it help?
How does The Story of The Dark incorporate many years of research on childhood nighttime fears into its story? … hopefully without anyone noticing!
Listed below are some of the hidden features in The Story of The Dark that may help reduce fears:
- Utilizing a child’s imagination – Research has shown that younger children are better able to deal with fear if they imagine the feared object in a playful or non-threatening way. Nighttime fears are related to the brain’s development of an imagination, so children with these fears are also very adept at using their imagination. Imagining The Dark as a shy, thoughtful, grandfatherly type entity in this book is easy for kids to do and it helps change their perspective of the dark from scary to non scary.
- Raising Awareness – Although nighttime fears are very common in children, most parents are not aware of this potential problem. It’s not the parents fault. Very little has been done to educate parents about nighttime fears. Without awareness there is little hope of improvement beyond that of dumb luck. But with awareness comes the option of making things better. Research has shown this to be true in the specific case of childhood fears, as if anyone really needed proof of common sense!
- Play Therapy – Ok, so most of us are not trained specialists in play therapy, but just observing and interacting with kids while they are playing is a big part of play therapy. Reading this book with your children encourages discussion about their fears and the dark. Ask them questions like “What would you do if you were Ben/Mia?”, “What is it like when you are in the dark?”, What do you think they are feeling right now?” etc. Simply interacting with them allows them to process the information and then learn from it and more importantly from you. These are vital parts of play therapy and of normal child development.
- Imagery Rehearsal – This is very successfully used in nightmare treatment and other therapies and is similar to using a child’s imagination to change his/her perspective. In this book, the image of the dark is not the only thing that is re-imagined. Sure things look bad when they are stuck in the hole and some creature is in there with them! But the entire rest of the story is reimagined from one that is scary to one that is fun. As such, this story is a model for imagery rehearsal. This is what imagery rehearsal is all about. If you don’t like the way the story ends, then change it to something you do like and rehearse the new ending. This method can actually change the way people think about scary things.
- Learning about fear reduces it – The simple act of learning more about a fear very often reduces the fear and has been a part of severe fear and phobia treatment for many years. In this book, the children become afraid twice and each time, after learning more and asking questions, the fear is reduced. This is a model not just for fear of the dark but transfers to nearly all fears we may encounter in life.
- Repetition – a picture book is typically read multiple times (just ask any parent!). Obviously repetition is a large part of human learning. It is also a prominent part of reducing fears.
- Desensitization – Progressive desensitization or graded exposure are similar components of the most common and long standing treatment for fears called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In essence, the item that triggers fear is gradually introduced to the person who is afraid, and in this stepwise fashion even very severe fears can be overcome. In this book younger children (ages 3-6 or so) pay more attention to the fantasy, imaginative and fun adventure parts of the story first. Then, as they mature, they progressively become more aware of the scarier parts. Another desensitization feature is that the story is usually read to them with the parent or caregiver present at first (i.e. safe) and gradually they begin to read it alone (i.e. less safe). Lastly, the parent can progressively turn down the lights with successive readings. Eventually the child is comfortably reading about something they once feared, alone, in the dark.
- Control – Experts have discussed the importance of control in child development for many years and it does relate to fears and fear treatment. In this book, control is quickly shifted to Mia and Ben in their first encounter with The Dark to make the event less scary. The Dark is shy and is easily hurt by being teased about his name. The children are the ones who ask him to return and tell them more. They are now in control and are more comfortable moving forward and learning about The Dark.
- Sleep Hygiene - Sleep hygiene recommendations have been a mainstay of sleep medicine treatment for decades. Things like having a regular wind-down routine 20-30 minutes before bedtime (like reading this bedtime story), and having a regular bedtime (child likes having this book read and looks forward to a consistent bedtime instead of resisting and prolonging bedtime), and having a dark bedroom to sleep in (this book helps kids be more comfortable with sleeping in the dark) are high on the list of good sleep habits for kids because they have been proven to improve sleep. Being physically close while reading can also help with separation anxiety which may in turn lessen nighttime fears.
- Knowing You’re Not Alone – Children may feel embarrassed about their fear of the dark, think they are the only ones with it, and therefore deny its presence. This can prolong or worsen fears. Observing the characters in this story being afraid of the dark, and then learning from you (the parent or caregiver) how common it is for other children to be afraid of the dark can help your child accept and process his/her own fear, rather than repressing it.
- Modeling – the children in this story successfully make the transition from being afraid to not being afraid. Modeling and observing others methods of success in the face of a challenge is a common way humans get the knowledge and courage to overcome fear.
- Developmental Maturation – The brain of a child age 4-11 is making a transition from fantasy and imagination based thinking to more concrete, logical and reality based thinking. This process is particularly prone to developing fears. At first it’s related to ‘any bad thing can happen’ (fantasy) and later on it’s related to ‘bad things do happen’ (logic). There is also overlap in between the two where both are happening! This book helps children process their fear of the dark thru this transition. Mental processing of something or thinking/talking/drawing or acting it out is an important part of fear and trauma treatment. During the transition kids may go back and forth as if the brain is trying to work it all out. You might hear them make statements that are also questions like, “The Dark isn’t real,...right?”
Interestingly, one of the most popular children’s book series of all time (selling 300 million copies worldwide) is the mild to moderately scary ‘Goosebumps’ books by R. L. Stine. It’s as if kids are drawn to things that help them work-thru this developmental challenge. Perhaps Walt Disney and Pixar Studios also tapped into this notion with their hugely successful Monsters Inc. and Monsters University movies for kids. And of course there’s Scooby-Doo, which started its comedy-adventure horror animation series in 1969 and is still on TV today. Approaching childhood fears in an appropriately playful way is backed by research and apparently by popular demand.
So you can see, there happen to be elements of scientific research and clinical practice woven into this story, but good heavens don’t tell your kids! Our goal has always been to make this a fun story first and foremost.
© roger s. smith the story of the dark 2014
To Purchase: Simply insert "The Story of The Dark, Roger Smith" into the search box in the Apple Books Store (for iPad version) or at Amazon.com (for Kindle Fire version).