According to the March 2015 issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, a Virginia Tech (VT) study found that children’s book Uncle Lightfoot, Flip That Switch significantly reduced fear of the dark in 89% of the subjects, ages 5 to 7. The article, “Treating Nighttime Fears in Young Children with Bibliotherapy,” points out that nighttime fears can create major bedtime problems. Parents often find themselves unsuccessfully pleading, arguing, cajoling, or ordering the child to stay in bed, only to have the fearful child respond by crying, whining, having a tantrum, or crawling into bed with them.
On average, it takes an additional 55 minutes each night to get dark-fearful children to bed and asleep compared to nonfearful children. Fear of the dark lasts an average of 5 years, though for some children it lasts into adulthood. Although the VT study limited use of the book to 4 weeks, under nonresearch circumstances the recommended time for the Uncle Lightfoot approach is 4 to 12 weeks, depending on the severity of the problem.
Dr Krystal Lewis, Kaushalendra Amayta, Mary Coffman, and Dr Thomas Ollendick conducted the VT study. A much larger 2006 study led by Dr Isabel Santacruz also found that an earlier version of Uncle Lightfoot was effective for fear of the dark compared to a control group for ages 4 to 8. Earlier studies were also conducted at the University of West Florida. Dr William Mikulas, professor emeritus at UWF, says in a release: “This is therapy that is fun, inexpensive, and really works. Plus, the children learn valuable skills they can apply in many other situations.”
The small multiple-baseline Virginia Tech study also found that Uncle Lightfoot, Flip That Switch resulted in decreases in separation anxiety, a problem often associated with nighttime fears. It appears that bibliotherapy can serve as a first line treatment for some problems before more intensive services, such as individual therapy, are tried. In fact, during the VT study, individual therapy was provided for the 11% of subjects for whom bibliotherapy was not helpful.
Several researchers have suggested that nighttime fears (eg, darkness, monsters) are mental health’s version of the common cold for children. Symptoms of severe fears—increased heart rate, shakiness, and fearful thoughts and feelings—can be just as unpleasant to a child as a cold. Unfortunately, unlike the common cold, nighttime fears often last for years. It now appears that an antidote to mental health’s version of the common cold may range from individual therapy to a children’s book with games.
Authored by Mary Coffman, a counselor from Seneca, SC, Uncle Lightfoot, Flip That Switch (Second Ed) contains refinements to the research edition. To help turn nighttime fear into nighttime fun, 17 games are included that address darkness, nightmares, being alone, and monsters. A Creek Indian (Uncle Lightfoot), a young Creek Indian girl (Elizabeth), and a playful dog teach Michael games that help him feel comfortable at night. The book, available online and through bookstores, is illustrated by D.C. Dusevitch and contains more than 90 illustrations.