What to do when your child is afraid of the dark

Is your little one suddenly afraid of the dark? Just yesterday, they were able to peacefully fall asleep on their own, and today they’re afraid – very afraid. What happened?

Understanding Your Child’s Fear

I will never forget the first time I went to sleep in the new house I had just bought. After moving and cleaning all day, I set the mattress down in one of the bedrooms and tried to sleep. The windows did not have curtains yet, and although the front door was locked, I had a hard time falling asleep. There were so many shadows coming through the windows, so many unfamiliar noises, I felt vulnerable. It took days to get used to sleeping in my new house. And if we, as adults, can feel scared at night until we can familiarize ourselves with our environment, imagine how children must feel!

Why It Happens

Being scared of the dark is very common in young children. Fear is a normal part of development, and almost every child goes through that phase. Usually it happens at around age two, coinciding with when children develop a rich fantasy life, and a strong imagination.

They also become more aware of their surroundings and remember things (especially things that evoke strong emotions, like being scared of a large dog in the park or surprised by a loud noise) much better than when they were babies. A negative experience can trigger a long-lasting fear.

It is their wonderful imagination that makes the books you read fascinating, but it is also their imagination that keeps them up at night, thinking of that big bad wolf, a witch, or a thunderstorm. To make matters worse, young children sometimes have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, so no matter how much you tell them that monsters aren’t “real”, it is a concept they can’t yet comprehend. To them, everything seems very real.

At night, when everything is calm and there is nothing else to stimulate them, their imagination becomes very active, which is why their fears seem worse at nighttime.

What Can Trigger It

Television and video games are the big culprits. The news also has strong content in the mind of a child. Be mindful of what you watch when your child is around, even if they are just in the same room and not actively participating – they can hear and feel. Children are very capable of picking up what is happening on the screen even if they don’t seem like they’re paying attention. Make sure they are not exposed to violence, directly or indirectly, either in video games, television or the internet.

It is also a good idea to carefully choose the books you read to them (yes, including fairy tales), the songs you sing, and the sayings you use. Sayings like, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite” might not be what you would consider scary, but it definitely can be for your young child. And don’t even think of threatening your child with the boogeyman, or any other child abducting creatures’ parents innocently use to get their child to behave or comply. Even if these things don’t seem scary to your child during the day, once they are lying alone in their room in the dark, those same images will most likely contribute to their fear of the dark. Be mindful of what you expose your child to and choose content that is not likely to be over-stimulating or provoke unnecessary stress.

If your child sees that their sibling is afraid of the dark, they will most likely begin feeling afraid as well. If one of your children is scared at night, the best option is to ensure your other children are not sharing the same bedroom.

If your child or your family are going through a stressful situation, the stress your child feels will exacerbate their fears. Make sure you take time to bond with your child and talk about their feelings. If the situation persists or you feel you are not able to help your child with their anxiety, discuss it with your pediatrician. Dismissing your child’s fear will not make it go away.

What to Do

Telling your child that monsters and bad guys are “just pretend”, or are not real, won’t help. It is important that you listen to your child and show them that you understand how they feel. Empowering them to talk about their fears will often help your child feel much better. Help them remind themselves when they feel scared, that they are not alone, that you are just in the next room.

Leave a night light on in their bedroom, and if a night light is not sufficient, you can even leave a light on, either in the hallway (and leave the door ajar), or in their room if it can be dimmed. A bright light at night might interfere with their circadian rhythm, but just a little light, and the sounds of the house can greatly comfort your child and do wonders to alleviate their fears.

A note on night lights: A recent scientific study showed that children who sleep with a room light on before the age of 2 are more likely be short-sighted than children who sleep in the dark. Night lights were also linked to short sight but not as strongly as full overhead lighting. Although this is not conclusive evidence, I encourage you to look at research findings on your own, in order to make a decision that you are comfortable with. Keep in mind, however, that this risk applies for children younger than two, and that fear of the dark often starts at two or later. For children older than two, there is no evidence to show that it can affect your child’s eyesight.

If the room is still too dark for your child’s liking, leave a flashlight by their bed, or a lamp that they can easily turn on when they feel scared.

When my sons were little, we had “magic dust” that protected their room of any scary creatures. They sprinkled some on their bed before going to sleep (it was a very fine iridescent glitter I only used for that purpose – like this one). Indulge their imagination and help them gain control of their fears. Some disagree with this approach, but I don’t see any downside to it. It is no different than believing in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny. If you feel uncomfortable with making things a bit more magical in your child’s world, don’t do it. I feel that it greatly empowers children to allow them to contribute in managing their fears.

Ask them what makes them feel most safe.  Sometimes it can be a favourite blanket, a stuffed animal, white noise, or some of that magic dust they can keep in a container in case they need to use it again at night. Make sure their bedtime routine is calm, and set aside a few minutes to ask your child what they liked about their day, their favourite moments, what they feel grateful for, or ask them to tell you something they look forward to the next day or week (like a trip to the zoo, or a friend coming to play). Help them focus their minds on positive thoughts before bedtime. Don’t make it too exciting or they won’t be able to sleep from their excitement!

Help your child feel safe by offering to check on them throughout the night. You can help them feel more in control by asking how often they would like you to check on them (for example, every ten minutes).

You can always offer to stay by their bed until they fall asleep, or for a few minutes, whatever you prefer. I used to meditate in my child’s room when they went to bed (after we read and chatted). This helped them feel safe and gave me twenty minutes a day to meditate. When my children felt they did not need me to stay anymore, they let me know. Whatever your preference is, you should know that staying with them will not “spoil” them or prolong their fear. It’s okay to be with your child when they need you. There are plenty of other opportunities to help your child confront uncomfortable situations independently. In fact, they do that every day when they are little, and everything is new to them.

What NOT to Do

Do not try to convince them that there’s nothing scary, or that nothing is “out there”. You can look and say, “I see a branch moving with the wind – that is the noise you heard, or the shadow you saw”. If you keep telling them you saw and heard nothing, your child might think you can’t see the danger, and therefore can’t help – or even worse, are in danger yourself. The things they fear might not be real, but their fear certainly is.

Never belittle, laugh, or tease your child. This is not advised in any situation, and in this case, it will not only show you don’t understand, but also greatly hurt their self-esteem. Don’t say things like “Big kids are not afraid of the dark”. Always be respectful and show compassion and understanding. Sometimes children regress – know that this too is normal and will pass. They need to know that their feelings are okay to feel.

As frustrating as it is to have to come back a million times and reassure your child, do not reprimand them, or show impatience. This will not alleviate their fear and can make them feel guilty or ashamed. It helps if you comfort them in the dark when you come to their room (instead of turning on the light) so they learn to stay calm and begin to feel safe in the darkness.

Celebrate Your Child’s Progress

When your child lets you know what they did to confront their fear (ex: “I covered my head with my sheet and didn’t feel scared anymore”), celebrate the fact that they were very brave, and that they found a solution on their own. Also point out instances throughout the day where your child demonstrates bravery. This will build their confidence in being able to manage their fears on their own.

With your understanding and support, your child will eventually feel safe at night and the fear of the dark will pass. This will take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. If their fear persists, discuss it with your child’s pediatrician. Soon you will see that when you tell your child “good night”, it will be just that – a good night.

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