Fear of the dark is a common and typical fear for most children. Fear of the dark usually starts to crop up in toddlerhood. When children’s cognitive abilities expand – so does their imagination! For some kids, this fear never goes away.
Some kids are more seriously affected by their fear of the dark. Children who tend to have an anxious personality can be more debilitated by these fears. They might follow you from room to room and might refuse to go into any dark room alone – even during the day!
Bedtime can be a complete nightmare – no pun intended! Kids can take hours to go to sleep and can wake up throughout the night due to their fears.
In general, it is never too early to start empowering kids to fight their fears. You can even start teaching your toddler how to fight their fears.
Arming your kids with coping mechanisms to fight their fears will give them a jump start in facing challenges and will reduce their level of anxiety in the future.
Validate your children’s fears – don’t discount them.
One of the most important ways to help your children is to first validate their fear of the dark. This may sound like some sort of psycho-babble, but it actually has some merit.
All too often, we as parents tell our children that their fine – when they are not feeling fine. Let your children know that you understand that they are scared and that it is normal to have a fear of the dark.
Explain to your children that the dark is scary only because we can’t see what is around us. When we can’t see what is around us – our imagination can make us worry about things that aren’t there. You can tell your children, “When your imagination tries to trick you, turn the light on and you will see that you are alright.”
Have light switches accessible for your children.
In order to help your kids feel empowered, make light switches more accessible to them. Some toddlers are taller than others and for some this may not be an issue, but for those that are on the lower end of the growth chart (like all three of my children), this can be a major challenge for the first few years!
Fortunately, the world of innovative toddler products has not failed us! You can find various brands of light switch extenders on Amazon that make light switches reachable for all!
Have battery operated press lights strategically placed around your house.
Keeping on the theme of accessible light sources, purchase a few battery-operated stick-on tap push lights. You can buy these at most major stores like Walmart or Amazon. Place the small lights in strategic places that tend to scare your kids. You might want to place one right by their bed or in their closet. You can place one at their level, in the hall.
You can buy those Velcro mounting strips if you do not want to damage your walls – as this is a temporary approach.
When you are teaching your children to fight their fear of the dark, the first step is empowerment. If your kids can feel like they are in control of the dark, they will become less fearful.
It is okay for your children to not like the dark, what you are trying to teach them is how to develop independent ways of coping with this fear. One coping mechanism will be their ability to independently turn on the light and check their environment themselves when they are scared.
Don’t assume you know why the dark scares your children!
Kids are strange little people, with their own unique and unpredictable fears. Recently my kid was scared of french fries and was having nightmares of french fries chasing her – no joke!
So, even though your children might give you an obvious answer to the question “What do you think is in the dark?” such as –monsters or creatures – it is better to not to assume – it might be something like french fries!
Addressing the dark, without the fear associated with the dark- is like putting on a band-aid without knowing what you are covering.
Sometimes we are unaware that some kid-friendly TV shows can have scary themes for kids. My children get particularly scared of Peter Rabbit – who is always being chased by the scary wolf. Octonauts have also contributed to a few nightmares about sea creatures eating them.
We can’t shelter our kids from all that they will see and observe, but we can have discussions about what they see and make some of those images and stories less scary for them.
Put fun light sources in your children’s rooms.
Although this recommendation sounds pretty simplistic – it can actually be a bit of a struggle. Too much light during sleep can affect your children’s sleep cycle. So keeping your children’s main light on is not ideal.
Not enough light can cause your children to panic and can keep them up all night. A dim nightlight can cause more shadows and make your children’s fears increase. A bright nightlight can cast sharp shadows in the room.
Finding the right light source that meets your children’s standards, but doesn’t affect their sleep can be a daunting task.
Luckily there are many creative nightlight options on the market. My current favorite night lights are the Glow Buddies (people or animal shapes that glow at night).
There are also glow balls that can be held or carried by your children when they move around the room or get up.
There are also projection nightlights that project various images on the ceiling (stars, ocean scene).
There is no right answer to nightlights – just what is right for your children. I have pinned some great bed time night lights on my Pinterest board Get Toddler to Sleep.
Eliminate the scary shadows in your children’s room.
When I have worked with children in my child therapy practice, they often tell me about a particular shadow in their room that scares them and keeps them up at night. When I ask them if they told their parents, they almost always say, “No.”
Usually it is an object that children can identify in their room that is causing the shadow. I have advised many families to move dolls, hat racks and puppets out of their children’s room.
Sit with your children in their bed when their nightlight is on. Ask them to show you what areas of the room scare them at night. If there is an obvious shadow, find the source of the shadow and show it to your children. You can say something like, “See, it was your doll making that shadow on the wall. We can move your doll into the closet and the shadow will be gone.”
Teach your children how to have fun with shadows.
One way to desensitize your children to shadows – is to have shadow puppet fun . Have shadow puppet shows with your hands. Teach your children how to manipulate their hands to look like different things on their wall.
You can get shadow flashlights that have plastic covers that go over the flashlight and shine images that project on the wall. During the holidays you can often find these type of flashlights at the dollar store. Teaching your children how to play with shadows will demystify the concept of shadows and will make them less scary in the future.
Celebrate the dark by having glow parties!
Another way to help your children acclimate to the dark is by having what I like to call – glow parties! These have become a popular activity in my home and can be at yours as well.
Find a room that has no windows – this might be a closet, laundry room or bathroom. Buy glow in the dark bracelets and necklaces. You can buy glow in the dark balloons or just put a glow stick in a regular balloon to make it glow.
If you want to splash out – you can buy a blacklight for under $20 at stores like Amazon. If you have a black light you can add white and neon shirts. If a mess doesn’t bother you, you can paint with shaving cream (which will glow in the black light) or you can buy glow in the dark silly string.
The whole purpose of the glow party is to help your children make a connection between the dark and fun. Most often this association doesn’t exist and it has to be established.
Give your children challenges where they can earn a reward for facing their fears.
This is an approach that I utilize quite often in my therapy practice and I encourage parents to use this approach at home to address many fears. When your children are afraid to go into another room because it is dark, tell them something like, “I can go with you or you can face your fears and take a challenge. If you go by yourself you can earn a prize?”
Some families I have worked with have created treasure boxes with little trinkets their children can earn when challenges are accepted.
Always let your children decide if they want to take a challenge or not. Forcing your children to face their fears is ineffective and will actually exacerbate the problem in the future.
A prize box encourages children to push through their fears and utilize coping mechanisms that you have been teaching them. You can verbally support your children by reminding them of their coping mechanisms – such as “You can do it. Just go in and turn the light on right away. You can sing to me as you go or we can sing together so you know that I am near by.”
Helping your kids overcome their fears of the dark will take time and patience. Kids learn through repetition and you may have the same discussions and try many approaches before you see progress. The key is to be consistent and to not give up.
Remember – you are planting seeds that may not blossom for a little while. Just keep on planting and watering and you will eventually see all your effort sprout!More Anxiety Articles
A teen support book on anxiety that your kid will actually read:
If you are at a loss as to how to help your child manage anxiety, take the e-course Teach Your Kids to Crush Anxiety taught by a child therapist. Learn all the tools she teaches kids and teach them to your child. You don’t have to feel powerless.
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For more help parenting an anxious toddler check out the book How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler
Books on Amazon about fears of the dark: