Is it normal for kids to be afraid of the dark?
Being scared of the dark is probably the most universal childhood fear, and it can also be one of the last childhood fears to be conquered. This fear is common among small children, but typically wanes by about age 7, though isolated bouts of paranoia beyond this age are certainly normal. Older kids who are still routinely afraid of the dark may suffer from general anxiety.
Why kids are afraid of the dark
The dark represents a great unknown for children. When you can’t see things, you’re unsure about what’s out there. And when you’re unsure about what’s around you, you feel as though you’re not in control of your environment. This creates anxiety. So if you’re a small child feeling helpless and unsure about what’s around you, your highly active imagination tends to dream up a parade of worries about what scary things might be lurking in the darkness.
Children have vivid imaginations. In the absence of sensory input, their minds can quickly conjure up all sorts of scary ideas about what might be creeping up to get them. Small children tend to dream up thoughts of monsters, whereas older kids may imagine that snakes or spiders are creeping up onto their bed. Such anxieties can be fed by strange or mysterious sounds, which exist aplenty in every house. Children may also experience eye blotches, which they can mistake for a bug or other creepy-crawly in the dark. So it’s easy for a child to quickly go from a fear that something might be out there to becoming convinced that it actually is.
It should also be noted that psychology studies show humans as a whole tend to be suspicious of the dark and associate blackness with danger, indicating that ambivalence towards the dark may be deeply ingrained in our nature. Children may simply be less able to handle these innate anxieties.
Dealing with a child’s fear of the dark
- One of the simplest things to do is to bring a little bit of light into the darkness. Get your child a nightlight and plug a few into the hallways. You might even equip your child’s room with an overhead dimming light so that they can adjust it to a level that makes them feel safe. This approach also allows for a form of exposure therapy: You can slowly turn down the amount of light to get them more comfortable with the dark, or adjust it higher or lower according to their anxiety.
- Another simple fix that usually works is to arm your child with her own flashlight to keep at the head of her bed. If she starts to get spooked, she can shine it in that direction to see that all is perfectly normal. After a while, she should come to realize that there’s never actually anything lurking in the dark, and the fears will begin to subside. The one downside to this technique: kids may use the flashlight to play in bed more than they use it for anxiety relief. But if you can monitor the situation and encourage them to use it appropriately, it’s often a quick fix that will put a halt to the problem.
Helping children overcome their fear of the dark
- Play flashlight games in the dark. With you acting as a security blanket, take your child outside to walk around in the dark. Turn on the flashlight briefly to shine it in a certain direction like a laser, and then flip it off again, as if you were playing a game of “gotcha.” The purpose of this activity is to help kids see that the same old boring stuff that was there in the daytime is there when they surprise it by shining a light in the dark. There are no monsters, no creeping menaces sneaking up on them. The key is to go several moments in darkness, letting their anxiety rise a little, even letting go of their hand. Then turn on the light. This technique will train them to better handle their fears.
You can also play this game indoors: Turn off all the house lights and wander around in the dark, turning on the flashlight on occasion. If you get silly about it (pretending to be scared over the sight of the sofa; screaming when you shine the flashlight on mommy, etc.) kids will have fun. And if they have fun, it should release a lot of the anxiety they feel in similar situations. Do a good job of acting scared over ordinary objects, and you’ll even get your youngster laughing while trying to comfort and reassure you, which will do wonders for their own fears.
- Play blindfold games during the day that will help your child feel more comfortable once the lights go out. Start by placing a whole bunch of stuffed animals at various junctures in the room. Place your child in the middle, and together take a mental inventory of exactly where everything is. Then blindfold your child or get underneath a heavy blanket, count to 20, and then throw it off to make sure everything is the same as it was before, which of course it will be. This helps kids get comfortable with the idea that things don’t magically come alive merely because they aren’t looking.
- Wait until it’s dark out, turn off the lights in her room, and send her in with a flashlight to try and “treasure hunt” for a particular item. Go with her at first if she’s scared, but after a couple of times, send her in alone while you wait outside the door. Have them search for items that will get them opening closets and digging under beds.
Or you could play a similar game by devising a glow-in-the-dark scavenger hunt to search for different glow-in-the-dark decals.
- Read books to children by flashlight.
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