Being afraid of the dark is a universal and normal childhood fear. But don’t focus on the fear. Experts say it’s how parents react and support their little ones that matters the most.
Compassion is the key. Moms and dads shouldn’t consider fear of the dark silly or dismiss it, says Dr. Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Michigan.
Parents have to remember that they too used to be afraid of the dark. They must do whatever they can to reassure their children and ease fears. They can do this through a number of steps including reducing triggers, addressing other factors and concerns, and relying on nightlights.
Remove the Scary Items
“Monitoring your child’s television viewing habits and preferences are proactive ways to help avoid certain fear-inducing triggers,” Cadieux says.
Sometimes even children’s shows and films have themes that might be too scary for your child. Other times, older siblings expose younger siblings to programs and movies too mature and frightening in nature. That has to be monitored as well. Parents also need to be careful about watching the news around their children, especially late at night.
It helps to avoid certain books. For instance, if your child scares easily, Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” is probably not the best book to read at bedtime.
Talk and Tap Into Emotions
Transitions and disruptions such as a new school, a new baby sibling, or an illness are often triggers for increased anxieties about the dark, says Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist and author of “Raising Kids with Character: Developing Trust and Personal Integrity in Children.”
A child who is confused or angry for other reasons is likely to worry about monsters under the bed, Berger adds. When the child's own emotions are too much for the child to understand, these feelings can scare them. In those instances, the best bet is to talk things out with a child to see if there are deeper issues at play.
For the best outcome, ask your child what kinds of things make them feel scared in the dark, says Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World.” It also helps to ask them to draw those scary thoughts using paper and crayons and to keep conversations open-ended to avoid putting ideas into your child’s head.
Allowing a child to act out the fear in a fun or silly way can help them establish power over their fears. The same goes for praise and acknowledgment when a child successfully sleeps through the night in their own bed, says Michelle A. Coomes, a marriage and family therapist in North Carolina.
Routines, Toys, and Exercise
Creating a calming and soothing ritual is often helpful. A glass of water, a set of special kisses, a book, or a stuffed animal to "watch" over the child are all thoughtful ways to bring a child comfort when they’re afraid of the dark, Berger says.
There are even plush toys such as Sara Sleepover and Sleeper Hero that were created to help kids conquer their fear of the dark. Comforting children’s books to consider reading before bed include “Orion and the Dark” by Emma Yarlett and Bruce Hale’s “Clark the Shark: Afraid of the Dark.”
When reading those books, consider carving out a reading corner or a special reading chair where you and the kids can curl up, read together, and let go of the fears and stresses of the day, says Dr. Fran Walfish, a couple and family psychologist and author based in California.
Parents can also offer to rub the child's back or give gentle tickles. This releases endorphins, which are very soothing, says Monique Prince, a clinical social worker based in New Hampshire.
Prince adds that parents should never underestimate the power of exercise. The best bet is to make sure children are physically active throughout the day, exercising and playing outside. A tired child will sleep, Prince says.
Let There Be Light
Nightlights and flashlights are also great alternatives and help children feel empowered and prepared, says Heidi Johnson, a marriage and family intern in California.
Leaving a hall or bathroom light on that the child can see also works for some children. No matter what kind of light is used, the most important thing is to let children know they are safe and that you're only a room away, Johnson adds.
If and when your son or daughter tries to come and sleep in your bed, direct them back to their room. You don't want kids to think their room is not safe. Stressing the need for them to return to their room time and time again is crucial when overcoming fear of the dark.