The fear of the dark is a common one among children and it can definitely hinder their sleep. As parents/caregivers, it’s our privilege to help our children work through their fears with support and encouragement.
You don’t want to miss:
How to tell if your child is actually afraid of the dark or of something else (or just stalling)
Ways to prevent the fear from developing (as best as you can prevent something like that)
7 practical ways to help your child truly overcome their fears and how to help them and get sleep in the meantime
Links and resources:
The book “Uncle Lightfoot Flip that Switch”
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It’s not uncommon for kids to say they’re afraid of the dark. It usually starts around the preschool ages (3-4 years old). If I had to guess, I’d say the majority of the time it’s not the darkness they’re afraid of, but something that comes along with the lights going out at bedtime:
Separation from Mom and/or Dad
Potential for bad dreams
Their active imaginations
Thoughts they’re having a hard time understanding or processing
That’s not to say children are never afraid of the dark! But, saying they are is often a catch-all for a variety of fears or anxieties. Let’s go over a few ways to know if your child is actually afraid of the dark, how to (try to) prevent it if you haven’t heard them express it yet, and ways to help them overcome it if it presents itself!
Is your child actually afraid of the dark?
Here are a few ways to know if your child is actually afraid of the dark and not struggling with something else.
They show fear of the dark even during the day. They show fear going into a dark room or space even when it isn’t bedtime.
They avoid dark spaces.
They insist on sleeping with the light on.
It’s more common for children to show fear of the dark than adults, but it’s not believed they’re born with it. Before birth, we’re in complete darkness during gestation and as newborns, the darkness is soothing. But, because fears are learned far quicker than they’re unlearned, it might seem they’ve “always” had that fear.
The fear of darkness may be a bit more common, too, because there are some biological roots as well as some genetic factors involved. For our safety, our minds become more vigilant under darker conditions (we’ve lost one of our major senses afterall!) and when there’s a stimulus to “prove'' that there’s a reason to be afraid, our minds retain that fear quickly to protect us the next time we’re in a similar situation. “Learning” or attaining a fear takes just one startling event under the right circumstances to stick, unlike the repetition and repeated exposure needed to learn just about anything.
That’s not to say fears can’t be unlearned, it just means it takes more time and intentionality.
Ways to prevent the fear of the dark
Chances are, if you’re reading this, your little one is already expressing some fear of the dark. But, just in case you’re just preparing yourself for the day they potentially express it, let’s talk about a few ways to prevent, or at least not encourage, the fear of the dark.
1. Don’t act afraid of the dark yourself.
Children are little sponges, they’re highly impressionable, and they learn far more quickly from our actions and the actions of adults (for better or worse), than our words. So, if you have a fear of the dark, or even pretend to be afraid of the dark, there’s a good chance your little one will pick up on that uneasiness and follow suit thinking they too should have fear because there must be something to fear.
Now, if you are afraid of the dark, I’m not saying it’s as easy as “don’t be afraid”, but do your best to not show it or express it to your child. (These following tips can help you, too, if you need them!)
Children have a hard time understanding the difference between truth and fantasy and sarcasm is all but lost on them. So, if you don’t want them to be afraid of the dark, try not to give them a reason to be.
2. Don’t assume your child is afraid of the dark
This is similar to the idea above; your child learns from you! If you assume they’re afraid of the dark and act as such, they’ll likely think there’s something to be afraid of and will then be afraid.
If you have a suspicion that they are afraid of the dark, ask open-ended questions instead of flat out asking, “Are you afraid of the dark?” You can start the conversation with something like, “I notice you’re uneasy at bedtime.” Then ask questions like:
Can you tell me about that?
What are you thinking about when you act/feel that way?
When do you start feeling like that?
Can you feel it anywhere in your body?
What do you think will happen next?
Any form of open-ended questions (questions that require an answer other than “yes” or “no”) will help you (and them) better understand what they’re struggling with as well as help them feel seen and heard.
And, sometimes, we just feel scared, anxious, afraid, sad… there isn’t always a specific reason. It’s ok to identify the feeling without attaching it to an object.
Simply saying, “I see that you’re scared. It’s ok to be scared. I know it’s not a fun feeling. You are also safe. You can be scared and safe.”
Sometimes just identifying the feeling and speaking the truth (that they’re also safe) is enough to cause the fear to subside and help them settle to sleep.
3. Avoid scary shows/places
Like mentioned above, children have a hard time differentiating between truth and fantasy, so be mindful of what they’re consuming via shows, other forms of entertainment, and the places you all are visiting.
Unfortunately, this time of year around Halloween, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the ghosts, witches, and skeletons at just about every home improvement and department store and kids’ show. So, do your best to shield their eyes or avoid those places with your child, if possible, and filter out the shows or episodes that feature those things.
Even the most seemingly innocent of things can really be scary for our children and we won’t always be able to protect them from it all, but being vigilant in shielding them from what we can is the best we can do and worth the effort.
A little example of something I didn’t really think would be too scary: Copeland, my oldest, was terrified of the big bad wolf for quite a while when he was around 3 years old. He never saw the show, but we have the old Golden Book version of it and I guess that rendering of the wolf was enough to give him the creeps!
Overcoming the fear of the dark
Like with most any other fear, exposure during a controlled time with a stable companion will help the fearful one overcome their fear. They’ll learn they are safe and when the fear does present itself, they’ll have the skills needed to work through it, eventually on their own! Here are some ways to help them overcome the fear as well as what to do with them/for them in the meantime.
1. Turn the lights off while you’re still in the room
It’s ideal to have your child’s room dimly lit during the bedtime routine, but even going from a dimly lit room to a pitch black room, it takes a few minutes for our eyes and mind to adjust to the change. Those few minutes it takes our eyes to adjust to the darkness after being in the light is called dark adaptation. Since those few minutes can be unsettling for children while their eyes adjust, spend the last few minutes of your routine in the dark. You can snuggle, talk about the day, get in those last few minutes of connection with your child while their eyes adjust.
More about dark adaptation…
Sometimes (a lot of times) fear is fueled by the unknown, so spend some time explaining dark adaptation to your child and how it works. If that brief moment where they feel blind is a trigger, this will help tremendously.
It can take up to two hours for our eyes to fully adjust to the near-total darkness, but it only takes a few minutes for our eyes to adjust enough to see in a poorly lit room. Since we can’t see much of anything during that initial adjusting time, for children especially, that can feel scary! (And if they’re sleeping in a completely, pitch-black room per the ideal sleep environment guide, their eyes won’t really adjust at all!) Help them understand that just because things look different doesn’t mean things are different.
During their wake time hours, show them how the pupils of the eye work by turning on a lamp or flashlight near your eyes (but not into your eyes), then turn it off. Be sure they’re paying attention to the black pupils of your eyes so they can see the quick change in their size. Explain to them why our pupils change depending on the amount of light around us. Simply put, the pupil is the part of the eye that controls the amount of light that enters the eye. When there’s a lot of light near our eyes, the pupil doesn’t need to be very large to get enough light to enter the eye for us to see. On the flip side, when we’re in a darker environment, our pupil dilates, gets larger, to allow as much light as possible to enter the eye so we can see better. The dilation happens quickly, but all the other mechanics involved in absorbing enough light to see takes more time. During that time, things may not look as they actually are.
2. It’s ok to check the room before bed under one condition
I don’t think there’s any harm in exploring your child’s room before bed with them to investigate as long as you’re never giving the notion that there might be something hiding! I think this gives a good balance of listening to their concerns without dismissing them and staying firm in the truth that they are safe.
During this exploration they may also find their own courage and tame their active imagination.
3. Avoid gimmicks like monster spray or ridding the room of monsters/ghosts/the boogie man
This would be an example of giving a notion that there might be something hiding. Not only is it lying to our children when we do things like this, it’s not harmless. By making monster spray (a made up concoction, typically of water and an essential oil, to get rid of the monsters in a similar way that bug spray gets rid of bugs), shooing monsters from under the bed and the closet, and ridding the room of unwanted guests only solidifies their fear that there is something lurking in the dark to be afraid of. (Granted, this means they’re technically afraid of monsters and not the darkness itself, but this is one that is most common among children that express a “fear of the dark”!)
We want our children to believe us when we say there is nothing to fear without instilling the very fear we’re trying to prove isn’t real.
4. You stay calm, confident, and positive (without be annoying) when with them in the dark
Again, just like our children learn our undesirable qualities (like potentially the fear of the dark), they can pick up and learn our desirable qualities as well! So, when you’re with your child in the dark, be calm, confident, and positive. Let them pick up on your positive emotions and use them for their strength if they’re having a hard time doing it on their own.
When I say “positive” emotions, I’m not saying to be annoyingly giddy or to brush off how they’re feeling with an always-sunny-nothing-can-rain-on-my-parade attitude. That’s just, well, annoying and likely won’t help anything. Instead, be positive in the sense that you’re happy to be there with your child and you’re pleased to be able to help them through this.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it can be really hard to not show frustration, anger, or annoyance when this is happening often, but do your best to put that aside. When they feel those emotions from us often, it can reinforce the fear. So, some practical ways to put aside the frustration are:
Smile! Even in the dark, just putting a smile on your face will help tell your mind it’s time to be positive.
Take some deep breaths. These can be done with your child and can help them calm down as well. If they’re really upset, taking a deep breath in, holding it for a second, then telling them to blow out the (pretend) birthday candles will help them settle.
Look your child in the eye. (Obviously, this will need to be done with the lights on.) By looking our children in the eye it helps humanize them and bring us all back to the moment in reality versus the one we’re spiraling into in our minds and emotions. Doing deep breathing while looking at each other can help, too.
Remind yourself of the truth. You are what your child needs at this moment and you can help them through this. They love you and trust you.
5. Work on being in the dark during other times of the day, not just at bedtime, consistently
Even though learning a fear doesn’t take a lot of practice, unlearning it does. So, it’s best to practice a lot and often, and not just at bedtime. During the day, as often as you can, practice the techniques just mentioned while in the light and in the dark. You can help your child work up to being in a completely dark space, you don’t have to start out there. When they “master” the coping skills that help them best when they’re not in a place of dysregulation, they’re more likely to be able to use them when they are in that state.
6. Offer a nightlight, flashlight, and/or lovey
Though a nightlight (preferably one that shines red or orange so as not to interfere with their sleep. Like this or this.), a flashlight (you can also get one that shines red), nor a lovey won’t necessarily help your child overcome their fear, they will help them cope while they’re working through it.
I will say, you’ll need to keep an eye on how your child is with the flashlight in their bed. It can easily become a distraction, of course. So, my advice is to expect them to use it a lot the first few nights. Give them lots of grace then since it’s something new and exciting, but don’t let them get out of bed or keep it on for too long. Set a time limit of 5-10 minutes after you’ve left the room. Once the time’s up they need to put the flashlight away (on their nightstand or under their pillow). Let them know it’ll be there if they need it later in the night, but now they know everything is as it should be and it’s time to get some sleep. If they disobey, the consequence is taking the flashlight away. If it comes to that, you don’t need to take the flashlight away for the entire night. Typically, just holding onto it for a few minutes then giving it back is enough. But, there is the option, of course, of taking it away completely if it becomes a problem.
A lovey, whether it’s a blanket, favorite stuffed animal, or one of your old t-shirts, can bring comfort to your child and help them settle when they’re feeling scared.
7. The book “Uncle Lightfoot Flip that Switch”
This children’s book has great reviews and its previous versions have been tested at 4 universities and found effective in helping children overcome the fear of the dark!
Here’s the synopsis from Amazon:
Michael is afraid at night (e.g., darkness, monsters, noises, burglars, sleeping alone, nightmares) and wants to learn to be brave. His friend, Jerome, calls him a “scaredy-cat.” Uncle Lightfoot, a modern-day Creek Indian, is a retired teacher who knows games that can help overcome nighttime fears. Michael’s parents, his brother, Tim, a young blind girl, Elizabeth, and even the farm dog, Lady, are willing to help Michael play the games and learn to sleep in his own bed at night!
17 fun games/activities woven around a fictional story for ages 4 to 8
Many new vivid, often humorous, colorful illustrations in the 3rd Edition
88-pages with short chapters (usually 3 to 5 pages each)
14-page Parent Guidebook in the Appendix
3rd Edition is a refinement of an earlier edition that received the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) Seal of Merit Award
While gaining tools to deal with nighttime fears, Michael also learns to ride a horse and rescues the dog from a cereal box attack! Can overcoming fear of the dark and other nighttime fears be exciting and fun? Uncle Lightfoot Flip That Switch: Overcoming Fear of the Dark makes a convincing case that it can be.
Though I haven’t personally been through this book, I’ve heard great things and think it would be worth trying!
The fear of the dark is a common one among young children especially. It can cause bedtime to be a dread instead of a joy, but no matter how that fear came about (likely “all of a sudden”), there are ways to overcome it. It will take time, effort, and intentionality on your part, along with a lot of patience, but it can be done!
I hope this post has given you some encouragement and useful tips in helping your little one overcome their fears! You are their hero and they’re blessed to have you.