Afraid of the dark: A troubleshooting guide

Is your child afraid of the dark? Is your child’s fear severe enough to be considered a phobia? Here’s what research tells us about the signs and causes…and how to help kids to overcome their fears.

child, afraid of the dark, under covers in bed using flashlight to peer out at imagined ghosts

How can you tell if a child is afraid of the dark?

If your child is acting scared or upset at night, isn’t that enough evidence? Not necessarily. Kids can experience a variety of nighttime struggles without being scared of the dark. For instance, a toddler might be in the habit of resisting bedtime because she isn’t ready to fall asleep. It’s frustrating, and she anticipates conflict every night as bedtime approaches. Somewhere along the way she’s learned to (mis)label her feelings as being “afraid of the dark.”

Alternatively, a child might be feeling real fear or anxiety, but it isn’t actually about darkness. Maybe he’s afraid of being left alone at night. Or maybe he’s frightened of having nightmares.

Whatever the case, it’s important to figure out what’s actually going on, so you can better address the true problem. And you don’t want to plant ideas in your child’s head — by making assumptions, or asking “Are you scared of the dark?” As I note below, kids are suggestible, and can develop new fears depending on what we say and do.

So what’s a good approach? Observe your child’s behavior in different contexts.  Does your child show a fear of dark places during the day (such as a dark room or closet)? Does he or she avoid entering dark spaces? Insist on sleeping with a light on? This is solid evidence that your child really is afraid of the dark. If you see signs of other difficulties, you might want to check out my troubleshooting guide, “Bedtime problems in children.”

How do you know if it’s a phobia, or a fear?

What’s the difference between a phobia and a fear? The shorthand way to think of it is that a phobia is a severe, dysfunctional fear that interferes with daily life. To diagnose a child with a phobia of the dark (sometimes called “nyctophobia”), mental health professionals look for these diagnostic criteria (American Psychiatric Association 2013):

  • The trigger (e.g., thoughts of darkness, or exposure to darkness) almost always provokes intense fear or anxiety.
  • The experience of fear is unreasonable, or out of proportion to any real threat.
  • The individual goes out of the way to avoid darkness; and when that isn’t possible, he or she becomes extremely distressed.
  • The fear interferes with the individual’s ability to participate in normal activities.
  • Symptoms persist for at least 6 months.

In addition to these signs, researchers also note that children may express their fear or anxiety by “crying, tantrums, freezing, or by clinging” (Samra and Abdijadid 2022).

Are children born with a fear of the dark?

Not exactly. After all, babies gestate in the darkness of the womb. It’s familiar and safe. And rates of this fear vary cross-culturally (e.g., Elder 2023; Meltzer 2008). So it isn’t a universal, inevitable characteristic of childhood. It’s something that some of us learn.

But it’s a common fear, and biology plays a role in its development. We tend to become more vigilant (or “jumpy”) under conditions of darkness, and our brains have evolved mechanisms to acquire a fear very rapidly. Under the right conditions, we can learn to fear something after a single, upsetting event – or by simply observing another individual who is frightened. The fear can be intensified by worries, too, and some of these worries are based on real-world threats, such as nocturnal predators, or burglars.

Moreover, many of the differences we see between children — who struggles with fear, and who doesn’t — are related to biological factors like age, genetics, epigenetics, eyesight quality, and early life stress.

So let’s take a closer look at how fears originate, and then consider what evidence-based strategies we can use to help children overcome a fear of the dark.

How the brain reacts to potential threats – and alters its response under conditions of darkness

As sensory information enters our brains, it gets routed to a structure called the amygdala – a brain region that specializes in identifying threats. In effect, the amygdala looks for evidence of danger, so it can tell us if we should flee, freeze, or fight. And — in general — high levels of activity in the amygdala tell us that the brain is dealing with stress, worry, anxiety, or fear.

How does the amygdala react to changes in lighting? Brain scan experiments suggest that the amygdala is more active when we’re sitting in the dark. Turning on the light suppresses this activity (McGlashan et al 2021). And there are behavioral changes, too. Researchers have tested how people react to sudden noises at different light levels, and the results were clear. We’re more easily startled by noises when we’re sitting the dark (Grillon et al 1997).

Rapid fear conditioning

The amygdala helps us identify threats and mobilize a stress response. How do we get from there to a persistent, troubling fear? The brain needs to connect the darkness with an adverse event. It needs to learn to associate being in the dark with something bad or harmful.

Now usually when we’re trying to learn a new association – like the pairing of a new word with a definition – we require lots of repetition. Word. Definition. Word. Definition. Rehearse this enough, and eventually your brain will get it. But fear is different. Our brains are designed to learn fear very quickly indeed.

If the first dog you encounter bites you, your brain will likely decide that dogs are scary. A single bad experience can be enough. In the same way, a child who didn’t seem afraid of the dark before might suddenly become fearful after a single, scary episode – like hearing a loud noise after the lights turn out. The brain makes an association between darkness and an aversive, physiological experience.

Moreover, there are additional shortcuts for developing fear. For instance, research indicates that we can intensify a newly-conditioned fear with subsequent worrying (Gazendam and Kindt 2012), e.g., “What if my mother falls asleep before I do? Who will protect me?” And – as it turns out – fear learning doesn’t require first-hand experience. We can learn fear vicariously – by observing the experiences of others.

Observational fear learning

Have you been around other people who act frightened of the dark? Have you heard scary stories about monsters or attackers that thrive in the darkness? Watched frightening television or movies? Do your parents give you the impression that you are especially vulnerable (perhaps by being overprotective, or by acting anxious themselves)?

All of these social cues have the potential to trigger fear or anxiety in children, and some kids are more susceptible. (Read more about it in my article, “Observational fear learning in children: How kids can ‘catch’ a fright.”)

Young children are especially prone to fear the darkness

It’s a pattern reported by pediatricians and psychologists: A fear of the dark that emerges during the preschool years (e.g., Orgiles et al 2008). Why this timing? It may reflect common changes that occur during early childhood.

When you’re a baby, you may not encounter any negative social cues about the darkness. Your parents don’t tell you spooky stories. You don’t watch television about scary monsters. But as you get a bit older, you’re more likely to come across media content that is frightening, and your developing language skills make it easier for you to pick up on disturbing information – such as an overheard news story about something terrible.

Then, to make things worse, frightened preschoolers often struggle to distinguish between fantasy and reality. As an adult, you might see a movie about zombies, and know it isn’t real. But for fearful kids, these distinctions are much harder to make. They are more likely to think that ghosts or monsters really could be hiding in the closet (Zisenwine et al 2013; Petkova and Cain 2017; Muris et al 2001; Mooney et al 1985).

Children with the rare condition of nightblindness are also at greater risk

Nightblindness isn’t common, especially among populations getting adequate nutrition. But for children who suffer from nightblindness, coping with darkness is much more difficult, and it can give rise to a fear of the dark (Sidiki et al 2003).

Genetics, epigenetics, and early life stress can increase a child’s chances of developing anxiety disorders and phobias

Some people are born with genetic variants that can influence fear conditioning and the stress response system (Kastrati et al 2022). Other folks may be predisposed to develop anxiety disorders because of epigenetic factors — biological “tags” that can switch certain genes “on” and “off” (Nieto et al 2016). And adverse environments – prenatal and postnatal – can change the way the brain develops, increasing the likelihood that a child will struggle with fear and anxiety.

For example, as neuroscientist René Garcia notes, stress can make the amygdala hyperexcitable, so that children react more intensely to potentially threatening stimuli – paving the way for the development of fear. In addition, chronic stress can make it difficult for the brain to “unlearn” a fear (Garcia 2017).

What can we do to help children who are afraid of the dark?

We need to teach the brain – step by step – that darkness isn’t scary. And, along the way, we need to be careful that we don’t introduce new reasons for children to panic.

Here is a guide to handling a child’s fear of the dark, based on principles of developmental psychology and therapeutic practice. We’ll start with how to adjust your own behavior when your child is experiencing an episode of fearfulness. Next, we’ll take a step back to review what events or stressors might be contributing to this fear. Then we’ll review evidence-based approaches to re-train your child’s brain.

Responding in the moment: How to handle a child who is afraid of the dark

When a child is suddenly flooded with anxiety or fear of the dark, what should we do in the moment? How should we respond, in real time, to a child’s distress?

It’s the same approach that we should take with any of kind of fear: Take control of our own emotions, and help the child calm down. Maybe you’re feeling really annoyed or exasperated, because this keeps happening, and it’s causing family conflict at night. Maybe you’re feeling helpless and worried. Is there something seriously wrong with my child? Or maybe you feel so anguished on behalf of your child – so empathic – that you end up acting as if you’re scared, too.

The feelings are understandable, but parents need to avoid sharing them with their kids. Such reactions tend to reinforce – or even increase – nighttime anxiety.  If we can take a deep breath – and get our own emotions under control – we’re much more likely to help kids learn to overcome their fears. The message to send – with words, facial expression, tone of voice, and actions – is nuanced, but crucial:

  • You are safe. I am here for you.
  • I will listen to your problem. I won’t tease you, or belittle you, or act dismissively.
  • I can help you confirm that there aren’t any threats here.
  • I am confident that you can overcome this. It’s going to be okay.

Pay attention to influences that can intensify a child’s fear of the dark

Sure, your child might be afraid of turning the lights off at night. But in many cases, there’s more going on. For example, many kids become fearful after watching (or overhearing) something frightening on TV. Other children experience nighttime anxiety because of daytime stressors, or past trauma.

It’s therefore important to identify these triggers, and work on solutions. Avoid exposing kids to media content that is disturbing, and be aware it isn’t just entertainment that poses difficulties. Research confirms that kids can become distressed by current events (Muris and Field 2010), so if your child encounters such news stories, be prepared to provide your child with emotional support and guidance.

In addition, pay attention to possible stressors in your child’s daily life, and help your child find healthy ways to cope. Kids are more likely to flourish when we provide them with emotion coaching, so that’s a good start. But if your child is experiencing distress or behavior problems at school – or showing signs of depression, chronic anxieyt, or trauma – you’ll want to consult with your medical provider about appropriate therapies.

Teaching kids to feel safe in the dark: Positive social cues, and therapist-guided exposure therapy

As we’ve seen, kids can acquire a fear quite rapidly. Unfortunately, reversing the process takes more time. Children need to learn that nothing bad happens to them when they are in a dark room. How can we help them learn this?

We should send the right social cues — modeling a relaxed, secure attitude toward the darkness. But kids also benefit from direct experience, tackling their fear in a series of small, guided steps. The idea is for the child to begin by interacting with a very small “dose” of darkness — one that the child feels comfortable with. Then, as your child feels more confident, you introduce an activity that exposes the child to a slightly larger “dose” of darkness — always taking care that your child is feeling secure and in control.

This is called “exposure therapy,” and (done correctly) it can lead to major improvements. If your doctor refers your child for psychological treatment, you may find that the therapist takes this approach.

But parents, too, can employ these techniques — if they learn the principles, and follow a structured, evidence-based program. And this is where a very promising book comes into play, one written by psychotherapist Mary Coffman. It’s called Uncle Lightfoot, Flip that Switch: Overcoming Fear of the Dark, and it doubles as (1) a storybook for children, and (2) a guidebook that shows parents how to lead kids through a series of therapeutic games and activities.

For example, in an early chapter, the protagonist (a boy who fears the dark) meets a girl who is blind. She teaches the boy how to “see” with his hands – making his way through a room blindfolded, and touching things to gain his bearings. Can he find the clothes hamper without peaking?

The story stimulates interest in this game – it looks fun. And the parent guidebook (in the book’s appendix) provides parents with crucial instructions. Don’t, for instance, try to play the game in the dark. This is meant to be played during the daytime – or in a very well-lit room at night. Other instructions explain how to play increasingly advanced variants of the game, and keep your child feeling relaxed, motivated, and in control.

How do we know if the program is effective? In what ways does it help?

We’ve got evidence from a couple of studies. The first was small, and lacked a control group, but the outcomes were intriguing. Krystal Lewis and her colleagues asked parents to use the book every night for four weeks, reading the stories and playing the games. There were nine children participating in total — kids between the ages of 5 and 7 who had been diagnosed with a phobia of being alone in the dark. And by the end of the 4-week treatment, 8 out of 9 children showed “clinically significant reductions in anxiety severity” (Lewis et al 2015). In addition, kids were more likely to sleep at night in their own beds (instead of crawling into bed with their parents).

The second study involved 63 children (ages 3 to 8) who were struggling with a fear of the dark. Half were assigned to experience 5 weeks of the “Uncle Lightfoot” treatment at home; the remaining children were put on a waitlist.

The parents in the treatment group varied in how often they read the book to their children and engaged in the activities. And most families didn’t spend a lot of time on it. Over the 5 week period, the average parent spent a total of 208 minutes reading from the book, and 131 minutes playing the related activities and games. Yet the treatment seems to have made a meaningful difference. In comparison with the (waitlisted) control group, kids in the treatment group experienced bigger reductions in their fears of nighttime and the dark. They also showed greater improvements in their ability to actively and independently cope with being in the dark (Kopcsó et al 2022).

Do these studies tell us that Mary Coffman’s book will help every child who is afraid of the dark?

No, and Coffman is very clear on this point. As she notes in her instructions for parents, we can’t know if the book will benefit specific children, and she makes no claim that it can cure a fear of the dark. Moreover, the book isn’t intended as a “substitute for consulting with a mental health professional for those children who need such consultation.” Rather, it’s a “learning tool” for parents to use with their kids. And I’m impressed at the sheer amount of helpful, therapy-based information it provides families.

What about other tactics, like giving your child a stuffed animal for comfort? Or using a night light?

While it isn’t clear that these tactics will teach kids that the darkness is safe, they may help children feel more relaxed and confident.

For instance, in a study of 100 preschoolers, Jonathan Kushnir and Avi Sadeh gave each child a “huggy puppy,” along with an explanation. Some kids were told that the creature was feeling “a little sad and scared” and that he needed help.

“He likes to be hugged a lot but he has no one to take care of him. Do you think you can be his good buddy, take care of him, hug him a lot, and take him to bed with you when you go to sleep?” (Kushnir and Sadeh 2012).

Other children were told a different backstory — one indicating that the creature would help protect kids at night.

After 4 weeks, it appeared that having a “huggy puppy” was advantageous regardless of the story used. Kids in both groups experienced significant reductions in fear relative to peers in a control group (Kishnir and Sadeh 2012).

Regarding night lights, I haven’t found any studies that test them for the purpose of helping children who are afraid of the dark. But some kids are too frightened to remain in a dark room, so using a dim nightlight may be an important, transitionary coping tool. Exposure to light — especially bright light and light with blue wave lengths — can interfere with a child’s sleep, so there’s an unfortunate trade-off here. You can try to minimize the disruption by choosing an amber-colored light, and going with the dimmest illuminiation that your child will tolerance.

More information about nighttime fears

In this article, we’ve focused on a very specific nighttime fear, but there are others. For a broader discussion of what can bother children at night — and how to help them — see my article on coping with nighttime fears. In addition, you might find these Parenting Science articles useful:

References: Understanding and helping kids who are afraid of the dark

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Content last modified 3/2023

image credits

graphic of boy hiding under the covers while peering out at ghosts by S-S-S / istock

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