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“Why Are Kids So Afraid of the Dark?”
11 Things Parents should know

As we approach Halloween, many kids are excited to show off their costumes and load up on candy. But Halloween can also be scary for children with all of its spooky decorations, eerie sounds, and things that “go bump in the night.” But have you ever wondered why kids seem to be naturally afraid of the dark? It’s understandable why adults might be – they’ve seen enough episodes of Law and Order to know what can happen to unsuspecting people in the shadows.

But why do kids seem to fear the dark without having any negative experiences with it? Here are 11 things parents should know about your child’s fear of darkness:

1. It’s extremely common

All kids experience some type of fear throughout childhood, and fear of the dark is especially common. Fear of darkness usually starts between ages 3 and 6, when children are old enough to use their imagination but have not fully developed the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

2. Fear is a defense mechanism

Fear is our brain’s natural response to defend ourselves against a perceived threat. Fears are normal throughout life but tend to be more vivid during childhood. While extreme fear can damage a child’s emotional well-being, a healthy amount of fear can help children take actions to remain safe. Fear of drowning, being burned, or being kidnapped might make your child avoid potentially unsafe situations.

3. DNA plays a factor

Ever had a terrible fear of something even though it’s never actually harmed you? Research has shown that some of our fears may be passed down through DNA from ancestors who had bad experiences with what we’re afraid of, such as snakes or heights. Though there’s no way to know for sure, it’s possible that fear of darkness could be instinctual because of our great great great great great grandparents!

4. It’s not the darkness that’s scary

…it’s the inability to see any potential threats lurking. The dark leaves us feeling vulnerable and exposed to whatever is around us that we can’t see. When kids go to bed, they have fewer distractions to preoccupy their minds, so instead their imagination runs wild. As a result, a shadow in a dark corner can quickly turn into a 5-headed monster coming to get them.

5. Movies make a difference

Although most burglaries happen during the day when homeowners are off at work, the movies often portray the bad guys breaking in at night. These images can make your child equate darkness with scary or criminal activity. To help prevent their imagination from becoming their enemy, limit your child’s exposure to scary tv shows or news reports.

6. Healthy diets help

It might sound strange that your child’s dinner could impact how much their fear effects them, but the mind and body are connected and there are foods that promote sleep and reduce anxiety. Avoid evening snacks that are sugary or processed. Instead try things like almonds that contain tryptophan and magnesium which help muscle relaxation. Chamomile tea with a little honey can also be soothing.

7. Bedtime is for bonding

If your child is afraid of the dark, they may have a negative attitude about bedtime, associating it with being scared and anxious. Add calming, bonding experiences to their nighttime routine to make bedtime something they look forward to. Story time, lullabies, and cuddles with mom or dad can help calm them in the dark and make bedtime a positive experience.

8. Fear is not a parenting tool

When you realize your child is afraid of the dark, you may be tempted to use it to your advantage. “Finish your homework or the boogeyman is gonna get you!” “Go to sleep or I’ll feed you to the monster in your closet!” While these types of jokes might seem funny and lighthearted to you, they may instill unhealthy fears in your child, so avoid playing into their fears to get your way.

9. Fear feels real

When your child has intense, irrational fears, it can make a parent feel frustrated. You know that there’s nothing living under their bed, but every night you have the same 2-hour battle to get them to sleep. Still, try not to downplay what they’re afraid of. Let them know that you understand how they feel, that they are capable of moving past their fear, and that you’re going to help them overcome it.  

10. Baby steps are ok

It’s good for you to encourage your child to face their fears, but allow them do so gradually and with support. Arm them with comfort items such as special blankets, a stuffed animal, or a flash light. Fill an empty spray bottle with water and glitter and tell them it’s “monster repellant.” Ask them if they want you to come check on them and let them decide when and how often to help them feel secure.

11. A Specialists can help

It is completely natural for your child to be somewhat afraid of the dark, but most children are able to move past their fears over time. For some children and teens, fears can turn into phobias that impact how they function in their everyday lives. If you are concerned about the level of your child’s fear of the dark (or any other fears), a Specialist at Variations can help.

Dr. Marta M. Shinn, Ph.D., is an expert in child and educational psychology. Dr. Shinn can evaluate whether your child has a phobia and teach them strategies to gradually face their fears and overcome anxiety.  

Cynthia Johnson, LMFT, is a specialist in Parenting and Child Therapy at Variations Psychology. Cynthia can support your child or teen with moving past fears in a healthy, positive way.  
Click here to schedule your appointment with Cynthia.

Dr. Christopher J. Sample, Psy.D. Dr. Sample specializes in supporting teenage boys through tough life transitions. If your teenage son is having a difficult time coping with fears, Dr. Sample can provide him with tools and resources to support him.  

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More about Variations Psychology

Variations Psychology is a group practice specializing in Child and Family Psychology.

Our specialists provide therapy to infants, children, adolescents, and adults to help them overcome the many challenges they may face throughout the lifespan of a family. We also conduct diagnostic testing of child and adult conditions that may impact the family’s mental health and development (e.g. ADHD, Autism Depression, Anxiety, Learning Disorders, college entrance exams).

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References:

Adolescence - Puberty, Cognitive transition, Emotional transition, Social transition Psychology Encyclopedia (2018) Retrieved online:

http://psychology.jrank.org/pages/14/Adolescence.html

Dowshen, S. (2015). A Parent’s Guide To Surviving The Teen Years. Retrieved online:

https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/adolescence.html

Puberty Encyclopedia of Children’s Health. Retrieved online:

http://www.healthofchildren.com/P/Puberty.html

How to Cite This Blog Article:

Shinn, M.M. (2018). Why Are Kids So Afraid of the Dark? 11 Things Parents should know. 

Psychologically Speaking.  [Variations Psychology blog post].  Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/why-are-kids-so-afraid-of-the-dark-11-things-parents-should-know