Nighttime fears - the details.
HOW COMMON ARE THEY?
“It is well known how intensely older children suffer from vague and undefined fears, as from the dark. . .”
Charles Darwin 1877
Estimates from many published research studies since Darwin’s time show how common nighttime fears are in children. The estimates vary depending on how the research was done and which questions the researchers were asking. Fear of the dark and nighttime fears, as mentioned earlier, can have several components. Therefore, the estimates are better described by looking at some of the study results themselves rather than just giving an approximate average:
- 73.3% of school children aged 4 to 12 reported nighttime fears (Muris 2001).
- Nighttime fear is common (Lewis 2021), with a prevalence of 64.2% in children and adolescents (Gordon 2007).
- Between the ages of 5and 8, 33% are specifically afraid of the dark (Cashman 1991).
It is most often noted in the literature that the peak of these fears occurs in 4-to 6-year-olds, with a gradual reduction after that (NSC/Harvard 2010). However, in older children the percentages are still rather high, and some experts suggest they actually increase. Children age 7-11 are in the concrete operational stage of development, which allows for the understanding of ‘cause and effect’ and may thus increase their fears. Recent evidence shows a surprisingly elevated percentage of college-age “kids” who have fear of the dark (Careney 2013). Here are some of the examples:
- The most frequently reported sleep problem in age 6-11 kids was fear of falling asleep in the dark (Hvolby 2008).
- Kids age 7-13 showed fear of the dark was in their top-10 list of fears (Muris 1997).
- In boys age 6 to 8.5, up to 18.1% “often” expressed fear of the dark (Rosenberg 2012).
- Adolescents recall fear of the dark as being their most frequent fear when they were children (Sipes 1985).
- 64% of kids 8 to 16 years old admit to nighttime anxieties or fears (Gordon 2007).
- Muris et al.(2001) found that nighttime fears become even more frequent in 7-to 9-year-olds and then remain relatively stable in 10-to 12-year-olds.
- A study of 108 college students who were either good or poor sleepers found that 46% of the poor sleepers and 26% of the good sleepers admitted to having current fears of the dark, and 68% of all of them had fear of the dark as children (Carney 2013).
Fear of the dark most often does not appear until age 2 or after (Garber 1993). A study from 1935 (Jersild) asked kids age 2-5 to fetch a ball in a dark corridor, and 45% of them would not go into the corridor without an adult. Overall, studies show that fear of the dark peaks at different ages for different kids but can clearly be present and frequent until late adolescence or early adulthood.
Thankfully for most children, nighttime fear is normal, mild, and transient (Bauer 1976; Ferrari 1986, NSC/Harvard 2010). However,there are three important caveats to this observation:
First, “normal” does not mean harmless, inconsequential, or painless. And few if any studies have followed the natural progression of nighttime fear for longer than a few months, so “transient” might mean “many years.” We just don’t know for certain.
Second, persistent fear can actually have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain (NSC/Harvard 2010). The available data certainly seems to suggest that nighttime fears are persistent, although more research is clearly needed.
Lastly, studies have shown that parents are mostly unaware of the presence of their child’s fear, let alone its degree or the amount of associated distress it causes. In the study showing that 73.3% of the children reported nighttime fears, only 34% of their parents were aware of it. The same has been found for other fear-related nighttime occurrences such as nightmares. Schredl (2009) studied over 8,000 parents and children and found there is a significant underestimation of nightmare frequency in the parents’ ratings compared to the children’s data. It’s not the parents fault. Very little has been done to educate parents about nighttime fears.
So nighttime fear is very common in children, may not be harmless or painless, and parents are largely unaware. Next, let’s see what the experts have to say about why it is important to address childhood nighttime fears.
ARE NIGHTTIME FEARS HARMLESS?
A paper entitled “Persistent Fear and Anxiety Can Affect Young Children’s Learning and Development” was written by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, through Harvard University,in 2010 (abbreviated here as NSC/Harvard 2010). The council consisted of 11 extremely well-credentialed doctors and professors. They formed a multidisciplinary collaboration designed to bring the science of early childhood and early brain development to bear on public decision making, and they were committed to evidenced-based methodologies (in other words: proven or backed up by solid science).
Why bore you with this? –because knowing where an opinion comes from helps you make decisions.
In the report, they say, “Threatening circumstances that persistently elicit fear and anxiety predict significant risk for adverse long-term outcomes, from which children do not recover easily.” The report goes on to note that persistent fear can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain. Also, children do not naturally outgrow early learned fear responses over time.
“During typical development, children learn to regulate their responses to mild threats and stresses. However, if young children are exposed to persistent fear and excessive threat during particularly sensitive periods in the developmental process, they may not develop healthy patterns of threat/stress regulation. When they occur, these disruptions do not naturally disappear.”
Of course, the council is discussing a range of fears, anxiety and trauma that kids experience—some of which can be very severe. Most nighttime fears may be on the more mild end of the severity scale, but on the persistency scale they can be quite high and last for years.
Here are additional science-backed reasons to consider addressing your child’s nighttime fears:
- Nighttime fears can adversely effect daytime functioning, increase the chance of daytime anxiety, increase behavioral problems and worsen sleep (Lewis 2021, Kushnir 2010, Kushnir 2011).
- Fear and worry have been linked to difficulties in daily, social, and academic function, as well as low self-esteem, depression, and drug abuse (Zisenwine 2012).
- Children age 4-6 with nighttime fears are at risk for developing poor sleep quality. Those with nighttime fear had a greater number of awakenings, shorter total amount of sleep,and lower percentage of sleep (Kushnir 2011). Many studies over the past 40 years have linked poor sleep to poor health, and even to poor school performance.
- People who sleep with the light on will get less sleep, and the sleep they do get is more fragmented and disturbed (Cho 2013).
- Children take 54 minutes longer to fall asleep if they are fearful than non-fearful (Mooney 1985).
- Darkness phobia causes significant discomfort and has negative effects on the child’s daily life and that of his or her family. (Santacruz and Mendez 2006).
- Ten percent of children experience severe nighttime fear that seldom disappears spontaneously, impacts overall adjustment, affects the quality of family life, and therefore requires intervention (Muris 2001).
- Children's nighttime fears cause significant interference with the child's functioning as well as causing much distress for the child and family (Gordon 2007).
- Persistent sleep problems in childhood may be an early risk indicator of anxiety in adulthood. (Gregory 2005).
This is to say nothing of what it’s like for a child to live with daily fear no matter what the degree. And when we try to think back to our own childhood memories of fear,they can be rather inaccurate. The human brain will distort or even block memories that are too painful to remember.
So at least try to think of a time when you were truly afraid as an adult, remember how uncomfortable that was, and then realize that children have many fewer coping skills to deal with that discomfort than do adults. Multiply that feeling by the months or years that kids are afraid of the dark, and it becomes very hard to dismiss or ignore the significance of nighttime fear.
© 2020 by Roger S. Smith
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