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Fear of the Dark

Lots of kids are afraid of the dark. Whether it’s the boogeyman in the closet or a monster under the bed that’s haunting them, here’s how parents can help their kids conquer their fears.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD

Jennifer Bianco of Lincoln, R.I., has two kids who are afraid of the dark. Her 6-year-old daughter absolutely must sleep with a blanket to help combat her fear, and her 4-year-old son insists on sleeping with a night-light.

Bianco isn’t sure when or why her children developed a fear of the dark, but she’s absolutely positive her kids' anxiety level goes up when the lights go down.

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“What exactly they are afraid of when it’s dark I’m not sure, but I do know their fear is very real,” she says.

Millions of kids are convinced that something is lurking in the shadows waiting to gobble them up. Experts share with WebMD some theories on where the fear of the dark comes from, why it feels so real when you’re only 3 years old, and what parents can do to help their kids tackle their anxiety.

First Fears

“Some people expect that kids should never really have fear, and of course they do,” says Mary Dobbins, MD, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist in Springfield, Ill.

Fear is a normal part of life for all of us, including young children. It tends to start when you try something new, something that you’ve never experienced before, something that is an unknown.

For kids, this happens almost every day, so fear has a lot of opportunity to rear its ugly head -- especially at night.

“The fear of the dark tends to evolve around the time children are old enough to have a sense of imagination,” says Jenn Berman, PhD, a family therapist in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Usually, the fear of the dark hits home for kids around the ages of 2 or 3, when they’re old enough to imagine, but not wise enough to distinguish fantasy from reality, Berman says.

This gives the unknown an opportunity to turn scary. Add to that a blank slate of a young brain -- with no distractions to preoccupy the mind -- and a shadow in a dark corner of a child’s bedroom can easily become a three-headed beast.

“There are fewer distractions to keep a child’s mind occupied at night,” says Dobbins, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics and child psychiatry at Southern Illinois University. “So instead, his imagination runs wild, and as a result, a kid who seems well adjusted during the day may be more vulnerable at night.”

Where Fear of the Dark Comes From

So what causes kids’ fear of the dark?

“Television is one of the worst offenders when we’re talking about a fear of the dark,” Berman says. “Parents don’t recognize how much TV can affect their children.”

The sights and sounds on TV are too stimulating for their brains, she says, exposing kids to things that might not be scary for an adult but are terrifying for a child.

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