As a parent, you want to make your child's life as happy and as carefree as possible. The last thing you want is for your child to feel afraid. Parents can find it very distressing when their young child suddenly becomes afraid when the lights go down. How can this happen when your child has had no adverse experiences of being in the dark?
A fear of the dark is more common than you may think. It is also a perfectly natural sensation and most children experience it at some point. So, let's take a peek inside children's active imaginations and discover why this fear arises.
When does a child's fear of the dark start?
Babies are not scared of the dark. A child's fears of darkness are most likely to start between the ages of two and six years. Although, it can also appear in older children. This is typically the toddler through to the pre-school phase. It can come as a bit of a shock to new parents. You are used to settling your baby down for the night with no problems. Suddenly, you need to leave the light on in your child's bedroom and check that there are no scary creatures under the bed!
This is a crucial time in your child's development. They will probably be moving to their own bed in their own bedroom and may find it hard to fall asleep. It is also an age where their imagination runs wild. They can imagine all sorts of scary monsters but are not yet able to distinguish fantasy from reality. To toddlers, those monsters are very real indeed!
How common is a fear of the dark?
Very common! Most children will have a fear of the dark at some stage. It is so common that it is considered a normal part of growing up. However, the feelings of anxiety that it causes are very real and it should not be dismissed or belittled. You should find ways to help your child cope with their fears, such as a fun nightlight. Your child may only be afraid of the dark for a few weeks or it may last for months. There may be other fears mixed up with it at some stages.
Fear is a normal part of being human
Obviously, it is distressing to see a child that is afraid. However, it is important to realise that our fears are our mechanism for keeping ourselves safe. Being afraid will teach you to avoid things that can do you harm. It is an evolutionary response.
Children learn to not swim in dangerous waters because they fear being drowned. They learn not to go near an open fire because they fear getting burned. The world can be a dangerous place and humans have learned to avoid dangerous things. This avoidance is called fear and is perfectly normal. Some research has suggested that some fears are passed down through generations. So, for example, if your ancestors had a bad experience with a snake, this may be encoded in your DNA.
Darkness itself is not scary!
Being afraid of the dark does not make sense because the absence of light cannot hurt your child. The problem is that they cannot see what is lurking in a dark room. This makes them feel vulnerable and a child's imagination goes wild. This is why something as simple as a nightlight or light up teddy can make the problem go away.
To make matters worse, there are fewer distractions to stop them from dwelling on the imaginary monsters that are about to emerge from their closet. Creating a pleasant distraction with a lovely unicorn projector can be very effective.
Negative feelings about bedtime
If a child feels negative about their room or about their bed, it can contribute to their fears. Perhaps there is a dark corner in your child's room or a stuffed animal that looks just like a monster in dim light.
These objects can trigger your child's imagination and increase their fear at night. Even though the feared object is completely harmless, the fear is very real to a child and should be taken seriously.
Kids are more likely to have a negative association with the dark and bedtime if they do not have a pleasant and calming routine. There is nothing about bedtime for them to look forward to and the day ends in a negative way.
Scary books and films can trigger fears
Some children develop a fear of the dark because they have been looking at a book or watched a film when something bad happened in the dark. Unfortunately, it is common for writers and film-makers to set a scary or threatening scene in the dark or in a dimly lit setting. This is great for dramatic effect but is not so great for a child.
Once children are exposed to social media and TV in particular, their imaginations can be fed with negative images that they find very scary. These images 'come to life' when they are alone in the dark. The obvious solution is to control very carefully the images that your child is consuming. They should not have unsupervised access to electronic devices. Watch out for what their older siblings are watching too because younger brothers and sisters have a habit of sneaking a peek!
Children's diet and fear of the dark
One of the overlooked parenting tips for helping a child that is afraid of the dark is to think about your child's diet. Research is showing that there is a link between what a child eats during the day and how scared they feel at night.
Some foods that are high in sugar cause a spike in blood glucose levels. This has been linked to poor quality sleep. Children who are awake for longer at night, have more time to develop anxiety. If children go to sleep quickly and stay asleep, they have less time to be scared.
Parent anxiety and childhood fears
Research has shown that there are several risk factors that make a child more likely to be anxious at night. If one (or both) of their parents are anxious, this can get transmitted to the child. The parent does not have to be anxious about the dark, it could be a different anxiety. Some parents are so anxious about life in general that they become overprotective. This is another risk factor for anxiety in kids.
Finally, anyone who has experienced a traumatic event is more likely to develop a phobia. This could be a road traffic accident, an accident at home or any kind of event that resulted in an injury.
At what age should a child overcome their fear of the dark?
Most children will grow out of their fears by the time they are seven or eight years of age. However, there is a medical condition called nyctophobia which is an extreme fear of the darkness. Whilst a fear of the dark is perfectly normal in children it should fade away as your child learns to tell the difference between their imaginary fears and what is real.
In a small proportion of children (and adults) the fear can develop into a phobia. A fear is classified as a phobia if it is irrational and excessive and is starting to impact a child's life. This is when you should visit your doctor to get some advice and support to overcome the problem.
Symptoms of a phobia of the dark
A normal fear of the dark will make children feel anxious but there will not be any severe physical symptoms. Nyctophobia, on the other hand, can cause quite serious physical and psychological symptoms. These include chest tightness, struggling to breathe, increased heart rate, feeling light headed and feeling hot and sweaty. There is also an overwhelming feeling of loss of control and panic with a feeling that you have to escape.
Final words on children's fear of the dark...
Most kids will be scared of the dark at some point in their life. It typically starts when they are toddlers and their imaginations can taunt them with what could be hiding under their bed! The fears should resolve as they start school and learn to distinguish what is real and what is imagined. It can be triggered or made worse by negative feelings about bedtime, scary images on TV and social media, an unhealthy diet and parental anxiety.
If you are concerned that your child's anxiety about the dark is more severe than normal or is going on for a longer period of time, speak to your doctor about what can be done to help.
Healthy Bedtime Snacks To Eat Before Sleep - Sleep Foundation
What Is Nyctophobia and How Is It Treated? - HealthLine