Afraid of the Dark? How to Help Kids Overcome Fear
Children being afraid of the dark is common and can start as early as 2 or 3 years old when their imaginations start going wild. But at this age, kids aren’t mature enough to distinguish between their imagination and reality. It’s our job as parents to help. But many times we get this wrong, and end up actually encouraging their fear.
I’m going to teach you 6 ways to handle a fear of the dark so your child can feel safe and cozy in their own room.
First, let’s start with the things you should NOT be doing.
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First, what not to do to help kids overcome fear
If your child is struggling to go to sleep on their own or doesn’t want to stay in their room at bedtime, this is advice you need to hear.
If your child isn’t saying they’re scared of the dark, then don’t plant any ideas in their head.
Yes, it’s natural to look for a reason why your child is fighting sleep or doesn’t want to be alone in their room, but don’t assume it’s because of a fear.
If you’re saying things to them like, “I know it’s dark, but there’s nothing to be afraid of” or “Your lovey will keep you safe”, you’re actually planting the idea that dark = scary or that they need something to keep them safe in their room.
This happens way more than we realize because as parents, we’re trying to make sure our kids feel safe. But sometimes we’re mistakenly making them feel unsafe in order to reassure them. It’s important that you make sure your words aren’t being counterproductive.
The next thing I want you to understand is this:
Your reaction to your child telling you they’re afraid of the dark is a major factor in how their fear either intensifies or diminishes.
Imagine this scenario:
At bedtime, your child says, “Mommy, I’m scared of the dark – don’t leave!” (it’s probably not this nice, usually some whining and tears involved)
You leave the room, but your child keeps getting up and saying they’re scared. So you go back and turn on their nightlight, and yet your child comes out STILL saying they’re scared, so you start saying “It’s not dark anymore, go to sleep”, and repeat, repeat, repeat until you decide to lay in their bed so they’ll fall asleep.
In this case, you’re teaching the child that the longer they complain, the closer they are to you coming back and eventually sleeping with them. It’s just a matter of when.
You’re also reinforcing that the dark actually IS scary, because you turned on lights and stayed with them. So your child can be left thinking maybe there was something unsafe about being alone in the dark.
A great analogy for this is daycare drop-off. It’s normal for kids to be unsure the first time they get dropped off, but you know they’re safe so that’s why teachers say to leave quickly and not linger, even if your child is crying. It sends the message that YOU are unsure about leaving them there, which is unsettling for your child. For a successful drop-off, you have to leave confidently so they can feed off your confidence. And it’s the exact same with bedtime.
Let’s get into some better ways to handle your child saying they're scared of the dark.
Don’t dismiss that they’re afraid of the dark
If your child is verbalizing that they’re scared of the dark, don’t dismiss it. Even if you think it’s bologna, don’t dismiss their fear by saying something like “It’s not that dark, you have a nightlight” or “You’ve been sleeping in here for 3 years, it’s not scary”. The more you dismiss it or try to convince them they’re wrong, the more they’ll dig their heels in and their complaining about the dark will get worse. When kids don’t feel heard, things escalate.
Help kids overcome fear by getting curious
Ask questions about what exactly is scary to them. Have them explain in their own words and don’t plant any ideas! Ask questions about it. What exactly is scary? Where did they hear about it? If it’s something in the room, lay in their bed and look from their perspective. You want to make your child feel heard.
Then, problem-solve together.
If it’s a shadow, shift some things around in the room to change it. If it’s too dark under the bed, put some glow-in-the-dark bracelets under there to provide light. If it’s the smoke detector blinking, cover the bulb with a piece of electrical tape. Working together helps your child feel empowered, which helps strengthen their self-reliance.
If you really do think it’s too dark in the room, you can use a dim night light or an amber-colored salt lamp on the dimmest setting. You can also use bedtime books to help.
The final and most important step in eliminating those bedtime fears that are keeping you stuck in your kids room...
Your confidence is essential when your kid is afraid of the dark
You want your child to grow up to be self-reliant and able to regulate their own emotions. Typical childhood bedtime fears are a great learning opportunity for teaching these skills. It can be tough since our natural inclination is to prevent our child from ever being in distress, but this won’t help them in the long run.
Let your child know you think they can tackle their fears, even if they aren’t so sure yet.
Your confidence will be contagious and help reassure them that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Your consistency is what will get them over it quickly.
Join my next free toddler sleep masterclass if you want to learn more about how to help your child become an independent sleeper.