How to help your kids overcome their fear of the dark
The dark can be a scary place, especially when you’re a kid. Fear of monsters under the bed, glimpses of frightening shadows and even strange creaks late at night are just a few reasons the dark provides plenty of means for a scare. In fact, 11 percent of the U.S. population has a phobia of darkness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
For a kid, being comfortable in the dark can be a bit harder than for adults. So as bedtime rolls around and fears and worries of the dark increase, what can a parent do to help a child overcome these fears?
A child can be afraid of the dark for many reasons, but generally it has to do with the natural emotion of fear. “Children fear the dark because humans fear the unknown or what we cannot see,” says Dr. Rhoda Gottfried, an Advocate Children’s Medical Group child and adolescent psychiatrist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill.
“There are cultural reasons why we have fears of the dark,” she says. “Some predator animals such as cats hunt at night. Humans can get lost in the dark because we do not have the visual cues to find our way.”
As a parent, teaching your kids about the world and minimizing their fears is just another part of the job description, Dr. Gottfried adds.
Dr. Gottfried offers these tips to ease your child’s fear of the dark:
- Make your kids feel safe. Hold them or stay with them after the lights go off and reassure them that they are safe and you understand why they are scared. Let them get comfortable in the dark with you and let them know that they will be okay once you leave.
- Help them take control. If they think there is a monster hiding in their room, rather than you clearing the room of monsters, have them tell the monster to go away. Let your child take control of the situation and so they feel like they have the power to control the monster’s whereabouts.
- Give them healthy snacks before bed. More sugary or processed snacks in the evening activates more brain activity. So when a child goes to bed after they devoured some sweets, their minds are on high alert. Because of this, they may stress more over their darkness fears than if they had eaten some vegetables or nuts as an evening snack. Other good night food choices include cheeses and dairies or hot tea with lemon and honey.
- Avoid watching media that can cause anxiety and stress before bed. “Scary stories were told at night around the campfire when I was growing up,” says Dr. Gottfried. “Horror films often use dark scenes as the scariest parts of the movie. Anxiety is the over-activation of a normal healthy protective response in the body called the fight or flight response. This response is needed for the survival in a dangerous world.” But this anxiety before bed can cause hours of tireless rolling around when a child is too wound up from their fears of the dark and the high stress media they just watched. So try to keep high stress media away from your child in the hours before bed.
- Try a dimming light or a nightlight in your child’s room. It can be a huge help that can make for an easy transition from having a light on to complete darkness.
A child’s fear of the dark is very common. “Normal children are going to fear what the adults around them fear,” says Dr. Gottfried. “If we are fearful and feel out of control, then children will feel the same way. Parents need to understand, manage and treat their own anxieties in order to help their children do the same.”
Finally, stay patient and understanding when helping your kids overcome their fears of the dark, she says. Over time their confidence and their knowledge will improve and their uncertainties of the dark will subside.
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