Scared of the Dark

Fear of the dark is a common problem for children. What can you do to ease their apprehension and help them go to sleep at night?
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Q: Is my 7-year-old too old to be scared of the dark? Every night at bedtime, he begs me to leave the light on because he's afraid.

A: "Fear of the dark is one of the most common fears of children," says Stephen W. Garber, Ph.D., a child psychologist based in Atlanta. "And it tends to wax and wane as a child's understanding of the world develops." For example, while a preschooler might be afraid of the dark because he thinks there's a goblin under his bed, a 7-year-old-who understands that goblins don't exist-may be frightened that a burglar will break into the house during the night and harm him in some way.

"Do not belittle your child's fear of the dark or force him to stay in a darkened room just because he's 'too old' to be afraid," adds Dr. Garber. Instead:

  • Ask your child what he feels when he's alone in the dark. Even if his apprehension seems ridiculous to you, reassure him with concrete information. For example, say, "You're right that the house makes funny sounds at night. Let's listen to them together, and I'll tell you what each one is."
  • Teach your son to calm himself by saying, "I'm safe in the dark; my mom and dad are nearby" or "That sound was just the heat coming on."
  • Gradually decrease the light in the room, starting with a lower-watt bulb in his lamp, then leaving a light on only in the hallway. Offer praise each time he goes to sleep with less light.
  • Help your child avoid scary TV shows and movies, since nighttime fears can be greatly intensified by what a child is exposed to during the day.

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