Dealing with your kid’s fear of the dark

fear of the dark

I’m here to tell you that fear of the dark is perfectly normal and it will come to pass - with a lot of love and understanding, the right bedtime habits and some empowerment. Oh, and maybe with just a little light on, too.

Believe me, I know it all too well.

I never thought I’d have to deal with a child who’s deathly afraid of the dark because I never had any trouble sending my first-born to sleep with the lights out. But six years and a little girl later, I was at my wit’s end trying to sort out my youngest child’s fear of darkness so we could all get some good night’s sleep.

The struggle was real - and it showed: there were dark circles around my eyes, I lost a few pounds and became unusually irritable. At work, I’d act like a zombie walking around or typing away on my computer. I couldn’t even hear my phone ring. I was always absent-minded. I mean, have you ever put salt instead of sugar in your coffee?

My daughter had it even worse: she’d wake up with a temper that often led to a full-blown tantrum - kicking and screaming, complete with waterworks. Because of this, it became difficult to reason with her. She’d refuse to eat her breakfast or complain about going to school - and she’s just in her first year of primary!

This went on for months on end.

The final straw was when she kept our entire household up on a weeknight, trying to convince us there was something lurking in the corner of her room beside the bookcase. We barely got any shuteye that time and we all ran late for work and school the next day. That pushed me to get to the bottom of my daughter’s fear of the dark once and for all and give our whole family the much-needed sleep we deserve.

I turned to fellow parents for support and scoured the internet for tips on how to help my little girl overcome her fear of darkness. I also sought the professional opinion of a childcare expert.

It took me a while to finally get here, but after a whole two weeks of sending our daughter to bed without a hitch and all of us enjoying uninterrupted sleep, I am proud to say that my little girl is no longer afraid of the dark!

Yes, it was a slow and long process (with occasional relapses), but was totally worth it. Now I want to share my experience and learnings with you so you and your child can get through these dark times (pun intended).

There are reasons why your child is afraid of the dark

There are several reasons why our kids are scared of dimly lit places. I discovered it has something to do with the very nature of fear as a powerful and primitive human emotion.

Fear triggers our fight or flight response—the same defence mechanism that helped early human beings survive. This heightened alertness makes our children aware of the potential dangers around them, whether concrete or conceived.

According to child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Rhoda Gottfried, our children's fear of the dark comes from our human instinct to be afraid of what we don’t know or can’t see. Things that lurk in the shadows, unseen elements and the difficulty of finding their way in a pitch-black room are just some things that frighten our little ones, and their over-imaginative minds can make them see things that are mostly unpleasant.

Unfamiliar things can be frightening

Any situation that our children encounter for the first time can make them nervous, scared or anxious. Fear often catches them off-guard before they even get the chance to process their new experience. In other words, the uncertainty of the unknown and unfamiliar frightens them.

This happened almost everyday when my little ones were around three to four years old, as they were just starting to develop an awareness and understanding of the world around them. A lot of things freaked them out because a lot of things were still new and foreign to them. For my son (my eldest), it was deep waters. For my daughter, it was the dark, which became a problem when we started training her to sleep in her own room.

An active imagination creates a fear of the dark

My little girl started to be scared of darkness when she became a toddler—about the same time she learned to string words into short sentences and create made-up stories. Jenn Berman, PhD, a family therapist, explained that the fear of the dark usually crops up when children are old enough to have a sense of imagination. At this age—around two or three years old—our kids can already imagine things, but they still don’t know how to differentiate what is real from make-believe..

One night, when I thought my daughter was already fast asleep in her cot beside our bed, I suddenly heard her crying and calling for me a few minutes after I switched the lights off. She was only about to turn three then and, when we asked why she cried, she told us—between sobs—that she saw “black fuzzy giants moving around.” My husband and I tried to explain to her that it was only mummy and daddy and that she must have seen our shadows as we entered the room after checking the rest of the house.

Negative experiences trigger irrational fears

We realised that the black-fuzzy-giants incident in our bedroom had a lasting impact on her as we were transitioning her to her own bedroom a few years later. This is when the nightly struggle to put her to sleep started; this is when my nightmares began.

In my search for answers on how I can deal with my daughter’s fear of the dark, I learned that toddlers start developing cognitive skills that make them more conscious of the world around them. They can remember things better now than when they were just babies. It’s easy for them to recall negative experiences, especially those that put them at risk—like stumbling, falling off their bed or finding themselves lost in dark places.

As a toddler then, the “black fuzzy giants moving around” our bedroom must have stayed in her subconscious and slowly crept out when she switched to a new sleeping setup.

Your children may have been in a similar situation or experienced something totally unrelated to being in the dark, but which they found difficult to process. For example, major life changes—like moving to a new home or having a younger sibling—can make them feel helpless and stuck in a bad situation. (In my daughter’s case, I later learned that her stepping up to primary school added to the mix.) These could trigger nighttime fears and even nightmares once they fall asleep.

Having an anxiety disorder can contribute to our children’s fear of the dark

One of the most important things I learned from the childcare experts I consulted is that our children’s fears could be a sign of a more serious underlying condition. An anxiety disorder may be the reason why unfamiliar things appear more frightening than they actually are. It could also be fuelling our children’s active imagination or making bad experiences seem worse and, therefore, linger in their subconscious.

I suspected my daughter probably had an anxiety disorder when she struggled to make the transition to her own room and when she started to dread going to school, but all this went away after she got over her fear of the dark.

What happens when your child has a fear of the dark?

Some children can sleep alone in the dark (a few may even prefer it), while others, like my daughter, will beg for you to keep the lights on as they sink into their beds.

Being afraid of the dark is a normal phase that many children go through. In fact, a study revealed that more than 64% of Australian children between the ages of 8 and 16 admitted they have nighttime fears.

However, if it continues or worsens for more than a few weeks, it can be a problem both for your child and yourself. I mean, come on, do you really want it to last that long?

For starters, it could take them more time before they fall asleep. No matter how tired my daughter was after a long day of playing in the park or swimming lessons, she still fought to stay awake at night. This went on for an hour, two hours and so on.

And even after they do fall asleep, they may frequently wake up in the middle of the night. Guess who they’ll call for when this happens? Let me tell you, I had to get out of bed in the wee hours to tuck my daughter back into bed more times than I had to go to the loo.

In the end, your kids won’t get enough shuteye and neither will you. Both you and your child will either wake up late or go about your day running on a few hours of sleep—just like what happened to me and my daughter. When your sleep patterns get messed up, you can expect your daily routines and health to suffer as well.

Coping with Your Kid’s Fear of the Dark

Dealing with my daughter’s insecurity and fear of the dark was daunting at first, but as I learned more about it and followed the tips I got from the experts, I started to see gradual improvements.

Understand your child

Never assume. I had an inkling that my daughter’s fear of the dark was connected to the shadows she saw in our bedroom a few years earlier, but I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. For all I knew there could be other things causing her insecurities and if I wanted to help her overcome her fear of the dark, I had to take into account all the factors at play. Asking her why she is afraid of the dark was the only way to find out.

Listen. My little girl has always been open to us about everything so it wasn’t hard to get her to talk to me about her fear of the dark. I was all-ears when she was telling me what exactly it is about the dark that terrified her. While she struggled to explain, I listened patiently and attentively to what she tried to say.

My hunch was right: it was the shadows she saw in our bedroom as a toddler that continued to haunt her at night. But apart from that, she also expressed that she was having difficulty getting used to sleeping alone in her own bedroom and adjusting to her first year in primary school.

Acknowledge your kid’s fear. I thanked my daughter for her usual candidness and her effort to communicate her fears and feelings with me. I told her that I still remember that night when she saw the shadows in our bedroom and understood how frightening that was for her. While the changes in her life (like moving up to primary school) is unavoidable, I assured her that we will always be there to support her.

Encourage healthy bedtime habits

Feed your child the right foods before bed. I used to let our daughter cap her day off with her favourite bar of chocolate or a pack of gummy candies, but after I read about the harmful effects of too many sweets and processed food on sleep and brain activity, I cut it down to no more than three small pieces of her chosen treat. Aside from that, I’d give her a warm glass of milk an hour or so before bedtime to ease her into a sleepy state.

Teach your kid relaxation techniques. After finishing her warm glass of milk, my daughter would get ready for bed (brush her teeth and take a quick, warm shower) and I would spend a few minutes with her in her room.

I’d switch off the lights and ask her to close her eyes, then we’d do a simple meditation activity together. Using a soft voice, I’d guide her through the practice. We’d imagine a relaxing scene, like lounging on the beach or looking up at the clouds. When she had already gotten the hang of the exercise, I started to play soothing music, instead of speaking, to help calm her mind. Eventually, she was able to do everything on her own.

Allow only pleasant stories and images before bed. One of our family rules is to watch only kid-friendly shows before sleeping. As this period before bedtime was for family bonding, we also spent this time talking about our day.

We also made sure we ended our day on a good note to avoid anxiety. As Dr. Gottfried explained, anxiety is our body’s normal and healthy response to the things we feel scared about. However, this restlessness caused our daughter to toss and turn in her bed for hours. So when our conversations took a bad turn, my husband and I steered it back to light-hearted stories with a moral lesson.

Leave a small light on

Install a nightlight in your child’s room. Before our little girl transitioned to her own bedroom, we bought her a night light in the shape of a unicorn’s head. We also decorated her bedroom walls and ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stickers of stars, planets and rainbows. These stickers made her look forward to bedtime, so she could see her own little “universe” come to life after we switched off the lights.

If you decide to get a nightlight for your child, make sure you choose one that is not too bright (ideally 4-7 watts). Pick one in a yellow or amber hue instead of white- or blue-coloured ones as the latter two can trigger brain activity. Alternatively, you can place a lava lamp in your child’s room, but make sure it’s not on for over eight hours at a time to prevent overheating.

Keep the door slightly open. After my daughter and I did our little relaxation routine, I’d leave her bedroom door ajar so the light from our hallway can spill into her room. She also said she liked seeing us passing by and hearing the sound of our voices, and these familiar sights and sounds helped her fall asleep faster.

Empower your child

Make your child feel safe. Our little girl stayed in our room until she was about six years old. When we started training her to sleep in her own room, either my husband or I would stay with her until she fell asleep. After a few months, we would leave her before she fell asleep, but we assured her that we’re just nearby.

I also chanced upon zippered bed sheets when we were looking for things to make her feel more secure during the night. These sheets kept her tucked in bed all night long. Leaving her alone—under the zippered covers and a blanket of glow-in-the-dark stars—has never been such a breeze.

Check in on your little one. When we left our daughter before she had fallen asleep, we also promised to check in on her every now and then. We asked her how often she wanted us to pop in—starting from every ten minutes to every half hour—and we never failed to fulfill our promise.

Encourage your kid to sleep in his/her own bedroom. Just when we thought we could already leave our daughter alone in her room, she had a relapse. One night when my husband went to check in on her, he was surprised she wasn’t there. We found her in the next room, getting ready to jump in her brother’s pull-out bed.

When we told her to go back to her room, she asked if she could sleep with us instead. But according to Dr. Berman, boundaries still need to be kept and that parents should give their children the tools to cope with their insecurities. So I accompanied our little girl to her room and stayed with her until she fell asleep.

Make light switches accessible. Our little girl can barely reach the light switches around the house. During her first few nights in her room, she’d wake up in the middle of the night and would scream and cry until one of us came to turn the light on for her.

Shortly before getting her a nightlight, we purchased a small lamp for her bedside table with a clicker attached to the cord that hung near the edge of her bed. This enabled her to turn on a light source by herself instead of yelling and waking us all up. Sure, she still came into our bedroom a few times and I had to go back with her to her room whenever that happened, but at least it saved everyone else (including our neighbours!) from losing sleep.

Pack away shadow-producing objects. After the “black fuzzy giants” (aka our shadows) incident, we made sure all the objects that cast eerie shapes were stored away before our daughter entered her bedroom.

Shadows can play tricks on the eyes of our children—like what happened to our little girl—so before leaving their room, ask your children to identify anything that appears frightening to them. They will most likely point at a shadow. Look for the object creating it, show it to them and explain to them how shadows work to let them know that there’s nothing to be scared of.

Have fun in the dark. While our daughter still has fears of being alone with scary-looking shadows, she’s learned to play with them while others are around. This happened following a shadow puppet activity they had in school. She and her classmates were taught to make shapes with their hands and other objects against a light source to create shapes on a blank wall. After that, she would invite us to watch her shadow puppet show or ask us to join her in creating figures on the wall every couple of nights.

Of course, there’s also her nightlight and glow-in-the-dark universe she loves to this day. She has outgrown our little relaxation ritual and now enjoys “light parties” with glow-in-the-dark bracelets and glow balls in her magical den.

Try these with your children or come up with other fun ways to teach them the darkness isn’t all bad. (Tip: Fun games that’ll tire them out puts them straight to sleep right after.)

Challenge your kid. In addition to having fun in the dark, you can also make a game out of conquering their fear and give them challenges to overcome. Praising them for their small wins and giving them little treats like an extra scoop of ice cream for dessert or an extended five minutes of playtime will encourage them to face their nighttime fears. What’s important here is that you always give your kids a choice: they can choose to accept the challenge and get rewarded or opt out for the meantime and face their fears when they feel braver. Don’t be in a hurry; their fear of the dark won’t go away overnight.

Offer a comfort object. Also referred to as a transitional object or security blanket, a comfort object is an item given to toddlers and younger children to provide them emotional support in situations that may cause their anxiety like visiting the dentist, going on a long trip, or sleeping alone. These objects may vary from child to child—it could be a stuffed animal, a favourite toy or their favourite bedsheet.

In the case of my daughter, her comfort object is literally a security blanket. Remember the zip sheets for kids I was talking about earlier? We had to get two more sets so we could change her covers because now she refuses to sleep in regular bed sheets!

For kids who sleep alone and have a fear of the dark, using these innovative bed sheets might be ideal. Let them pretend it’s a protective cloak that will keep them safe as long as they stay tucked in. And I promise you, no matter how much they toss and turn in their sleep, they will stay tucked in! Thanks to the mild restraining effect and security that these sheets offer, they also ensure your kids won’t fall off their beds or kick their covers in the middle of the night.

Identify deeper issues

While I learned that it’s normal for young children to be afraid of the dark, I didn’t discount the possibility that my daughter’s fear may be a manifestation of a bigger problem. We went to a few counselling sessions with a certified child psychiatrist referred by her paediatrician, which helped a lot in understanding our little girl’s fears. Fortunately, our daughter wasn’t diagnosed with any form of anxiety disorder.

If you feel your child may be suffering from traumatic stress due to overwhelming events like the death of a loved one or divorce of parents, among others, please seek the advice of a qualified professional to see if your kid has a generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). According to paediatrician and child psychiatrist Mary Dobbins, MD., one of the ways GAD could reveal itself is through a fear of the dark.

No more dark fears

It’s perfectly okay for our children to be afraid of the dark. Remember, it is only a phase that most kids grow out of overtime, just like our little girl did. But while they are in that phase, we need to show them that we understand them and that we are there to help them overcome it. All the tips I shared with you helped my daughter face her dark fears (and allowed us to sleep properly again!), and I hope they will do the same for you, too.