A response to our previous post on “The Fear of the Dark” in children… see the following link…
I must admit that I have a different understanding of children’s fear of the dark.
When I was a child–I was born in 1940 in Australia–the Second World War had started, and one of my earliest memories is that I KNEW that, after dark, Japanese soldiers–the enemy– were behind the garage. We had an outside toilet, built on to the end of the garage. I was terrified to go outside to the toilet at night. I’m amazed that no-one ever asked me what I was afraid of or why I was afraid. they thought my fear was irrational
But my understanding of these ‘irrational fears’ of childhood has been altered by my understanding of attachment theory.
I am posting some notes on my current understanding of children’s fear of the dark.
Bowlby on the attachment behavioural system
‘Once we postulate the presence within the organism of an attachment behavioural system regarded as the product of evolution and having protection as its biological function, many of the puzzles that have perplexed students of human relationships are found to be soluble. . . An urge to keep proximity or accessibility to someone seen as stronger and wiser, and who if responsive is deeply loved, comes to be recognised as an integral part of human nature and as having a vital role to play in life. Not only does its effective operation bring with it a strong feeling of security and contentment, but its temporary or long-term frustration causes acute or chronic anxiety and discontent. When seen in this light, the urge to keep proximity is to be respected, valued, and nurtured as making for potential strength, instead of being looked down upon, as so often hitherto, as a sign of inherent weakness. (Bowlby, 1991, p. 293 of postscript to Attachment Across the Life Cycle)
Attachment involves four distinct but interrelated classes of behaviour
 ‘Bowlby (1982) defined attachment in terms of four distinct but interrelated classes of behaviour: proximity maintenance, safe haven, separation distress, and secure base. These behaviours are readily observable in 1-year-old infants in relation to their primary caregivers (usually mothers). The infant continuously monitors the caregiver’s wherabouts and makes any adjustments necessary for maintaining the desired degree of proximity, retreats to her as a haven of safety in the event of a perceived threat, is actively resistant to and distressed by separations from her, and uses her as a base of security from which to explore the environment. Infants often direct one of more of these behaviours toward individuals to whom they are not attached. Importantly, it is the selective orientation of all these behaviours toward a specific individual that defines attachment. (From Hazan et al. 2004) .
Infant attachment behaviours: behaviours that maintain proximity to the mother
Bowlby noted that infants all around the globe manifest five behaviours that help keep the mother and infant together. They are: crying, sucking, clinging, following and smiling. The first four are also common to other primates. Only chimpanzee infants also smile.
What turns on attachment behaviours? Clues to an increase in danger
There are natural clues to an increase in danger. Infants have evolved to recognise these clues. They do not have to learn them from experience. They are:
- being alone,
- separation from the mother,
- sudden loud noises,
- looming figures,
- unfamiliar environment,
- the presence of strangers,
- change in temperature,
- being sick.
In the past, children’s responses to some of these clues (or cues) to danger—such as fear of the dark—have been considered to be the ‘irrational fears of childhood’. But in hunter-gatherer societies they were clues to increased danger and this increased danger provokes attachment behaviour in the infant and therefore the need to be close to the mother or mothering person.
- Function. ‘Many aspects of infant and child behaviour and mother-infant interaction seem irrelevant to the modern world, and can only be understood in terms of the evolution of humans in an environment very different from the modern city.’
These fears used to be seen as ‘the irrational fears of childhood’. They make sense only when seen as functional in the environments in which humans evolved.
The environment of evolutionary adaptedness
‘The environment of evolutionary adaptedness’ refers to the environment to which the human species has become adapted through evolution: that is an environment similar to that in which current day hunter-gatherer societies live.
The solution to fear of the dark
Bowlby discovered that the only thing that can ‘terminate’ attachment behaviour such as fear of the dark is closeness to the attachment figure. So what is required is not explanations to a young child about how there is nothing to fear, but be close, be available. This is what removes his/her fear.
Moira Eastman has her own website, essentialmother.com and is particularly interested in attachment. Moira works at Mothering Business and studied Sociology of education at Monash University, Melbourne.
She is a member of the group “Mothers at Home Matter”, a UK based group. “Mothers at Home Matter” – PO Box 43690 London SE22 9WN
www.mothersathomematter.co.uk – is about redefining values, re-honouring the name “mother” and highlighting children’s developmental needs. It is about understanding the impact of economic forces on the family – mothers and fathers – and campaigning for change. The full aims of the organisation are on their website (see address above). “Mother at Home Matter” are not affiliated to any political party or faith group.