Tackling Children’s Fear of the Dark

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Many children struggle with fear of the dark, but sometimes as a parent it’s difficult to know how best to help relieve it. With that in mind, we’ve put together some great ideas that can help your little one tackle the night.

Fear of the dark is common in children, sometimes they are afraid of imaginary monsters or it might just be a scary character from a film that has frightened them. Whether they fear a dark creature lurking in the shadows or the White Witch from Narnia, there are plenty of ideas – both old and new – you can use to help minimise it.

Do the monster mash

Firstly, it’s important to work out the source of your child’s fear so you can combat the fear appropriately, if it’s a monster under the bed then that will need a far different solution to a child who simply worries about being left alone for long periods of time. Often parents will have experienced a similar fear when they were younger and subsequently have the best idea of how to tackle it; think about how exactly you what would have helped yourself when you were a child.

Mary Dobbins, MD, is a paediatrician and child psychiatrist, she believes one of the most important things you can do is stay calm. She suggests you listen to your child and take their fear seriously, explaining to them what fear is and helping them to understand that it is a normal feeling. Staying calm and giving them a sense of security can make a huge difference. It’s vital to help your child see that they can handle their own fear.

Handling fear is something every child will do differently, however creating an environment that feels safe and secure works well for every child. Whilst their terror of a monster that appears in the dark may seem silly to you, take it seriously – because although the monster isn’t real, their fear is!

A nice cup of chamomile tea

A good start can be to create a relaxing bedtime routine. Wound-up children are more likely to imagine scary things or be unable to sleep because their brains are over-stimulated. It is suggested that screens such as televisions and laptops can have an impact on sleeplessness so naturally try to avoid watching their favourite video before bed and swap it for their favourite book instead. It is worth mentioning that sometimes a television show may frighten your child and cause their imagination to run wild at night; there may be a character who is very scary to young children or children who are particularly sensitive, but not for older children or adults. It’s worth being particularly aware of this if they have older siblings.

Hot drinks can also soothe your child at bedtime and you might like to try them on chamomile tea, which has relaxing properties and is famously drunk by Peter Rabbit – a fun story for them! Chocolate, however, should really be avoided because the small amount of caffeine in it can have an effect on small bodies. A nice warm bath is good to work into a bedtime routine and adding a drop of lavender can really begin to soothe your youngster.

Night lights and bed frights

Start to think of what would make their environment during the night a less frightening place. Many children find nightlights helpful. Studies have found that 80% of young children experience scary dreams, so it is much nicer for them to wake up to a comforting glow in their room rather than darkness where they can imagine anything to be lurking.

There are lots of great nightlights around, some which even remain cool enough (and even soft enough) for the child to hold at night. Others can also be carried around, so if your child needs the toilet in the night, they can safely face the dark with a lantern.

For many children, distraction is key and often both imagination and fear of being alone contributes to how frightened they feel. In this instance it could be useful to use an audiobook, plenty of fun children’s books are available to listen to and many children find a friendly voice reassuring to fall asleep to, or to put on after a bad dream. It is a good idea to give them an audiobook of a book already very familiar to them, both because it is reassuring to hear something familiar and it means they will not feel the need to stay awake to listen to the end – they’ll already know it!

Get creative with your solutions. If there is a monster under the bed, create a fun story involving him so he’s not something to be afraid of any more. Make your child a story book and draw the monster looking quite friendly. Jenn Berman, PhD, a family therapist in California recommends giving children things to comfort them, such as a teddy bear. You could go down different routes with this, you could give your child a huge cuddly tiger who can ‘protect them’ while they sleep. An idea continuing from the monster would be to hide a monster teddy under the bed and suggest your child looks under the bed before sleep – they will find a monster, but he won’t be scary like they imagined!

Trust your intuition as a parent, you may feel that seeing a cuddly toy monster under the bed would help, or you may try an audiobook and find it’s successful. Often, it will be a combination of these things. Stay calm, reassure your child and keep trying different ideas: fear is something we all have must learn to overcome.