Children’s Fear of the Dark

By DullesMoms, Aug 2023

Fear of the dark, technically called nyctophobia, is a common fear among children. But, how did it begin? How did your little one decide one day that dark was scary?

Psychological Factors
Social & Cultural Factors
Developmental Factors
Helping Your Child

Psychological Factors
Fear of the dark often emerges around the time children begin to grasp the concept of risk and danger. Without the visual information that light provides, children may feel uncertain and imagine dangers that they cannot see or assess.

Social & Cultural Factors
Cultural narratives and media can also influence a child’s fear of the dark. Stories and movies often portray darkness as a setting for scary events, which can reinforce a child’s fear. Parental reactions to a child’s fear can either exacerbate or alleviate the concern. Overprotective responses may unintentionally confirm that the dark is something to be feared, while supportive guidance can help children manage their fears.

Developmental Factors
Children’s fears often correlate with normal cognitive and emotional development. As children’s imaginations expand during the preschool years, they begin to engage in magical thinking and struggle to differentiate between reality and fantasy. In the dark, where visibility is limited, their imaginations can run wild, turning shadows into monsters or soft sounds into unseen threats.

Additionally, separation anxiety can play a role. Darkness often coincides with bedtime, which for many children means a time of separation from their parents, compounding the fear.

2-3 Years Old
Fear of the dark may begin as early as age two and continue through the preschool years to age 5. Emotional signs at this stage often include panic and anxiety, as this is the time when a child’s imagination is burgeoning.

3-4 Years Old
A fear of the dark usually first occurs around the age of 3 or 4. It’s a period when a child’s understanding of the world is expanding, and their fear may manifest as a feeling of being powerless over their fear or a desperate need to escape the situation.

5-6 Years Old
This age group is still in the preschool range, so their fears are similar to those of toddlers and younger preschoolers, but they might start to develop more specific scenarios in their minds due to their increased exposure to stories and media.

7-9 Years Old
Children tend to experience peak intensity of fear of the dark around ages 7-9. This is when they begin to discern reality from fiction, and fears may shift toward real-life concerns such as getting hurt or the presence of intruders. Nightmares may also play a significant role in fear at this stage.

Up to 12 Years Old
By the time children reach the age of 12, most have outgrown their fear of the dark. However, it’s not uncommon for fear of the dark to last through late elementary school and into middle school for some.

Helping Children
There are many ways to help kids, young and old, overcome their fear of the dark. However, keep in mind that it’s important to be patient and to recognize fear of the dark usually diminishes with age as maturity allows children to differentiate between imagined and real dangers.

To help children overcome their fear of the dark, consider the following strategies:

Confidence & Validation
Exude confidence when addressing your child’s fear and validate their feelings. A positive and matter-of-fact approach can reassure them.

Praise After Facing Fears
Celebrate your child’s bravery after they face their fear. Praise them for staying in bed all night or for any small victories over their fear.

Consistent Bedtime Routine
Establish and maintain a calming bedtime routine that might include reading, singing, or quiet time, ending with reassuring words.

Relaxation Techniques
Teach your child ways to relax at night, like breathing exercises or listening to soothing music. A transition object like a stuffed animal can also be comforting.

Promote Curiosity
When children ask about monsters or scary things, ask questions that encourage them to think critically instead of dismissing their fears outright.

Practice Being in the Dark
Use the daytime to practice being in the dark through fun activities like shadow puppets or glow stick dance parties to show darkness isn’t always scary.

Identify the Fear
Ask open-ended questions to understand what specific aspects of the dark frighten your child. Knowing the root cause can help address their fear more effectively.

Avoid Reinforcing the Fear
Acknowledge your child’s fear, but don’t reinforce it by checking for monsters, which might suggest there’s something to fear. Reassure them of their safety instead.

Stay in the Room
Encourage your child to stay in their room to face their fear. Provide comfort if necessary, but reinforce the idea that their bed and room are safe spaces.

Empowerment During the Day
Strengthen your child’s self-confidence and coping skills during the day. Discussing fears when it’s light outside can help them feel more in control at night.

Please note, this content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.