Q: My 3-year-old used to be content sleeping in a pitch-black room at night. Now she won’t even agree to lie down in her bed if it’s dark. Is this normal? What changed? What can I do?
A: Your daughter, like many other children her age, has developed a fear of the dark (likely among other fears). To parents, this may sound illogical and counterintuitive, but young children have a LOT of fears, many of which are related to the unknown, which “the dark” truly represents. Fear, in adults and children, is associated with change and new things – and that is the life of a 3-year-old in a nutshell! Thus, a lot of these behaviors can worsen with a change in who lives in the home, a death of a family member, or the birth of a new sibling.
Initially, children do not have very strong imaginations and do not have the capacity for fantasy play. However, as children become older and more developmentally sophisticated, some of the fantasies they develop are bound to be scary. Unfortunately, at this age, children are not able to distinguish fact from fiction, so their brain creates the fear but is unable to convince them that there’s nothing to be afraid of, rationally speaking.
Fear of the dark can be exacerbated by exposure to media – age-inappropriate television shows or movies can lower the threshold for a child to be fearful. Their imagination might just start to run away from them when the television is turned off (and thus their brain is no longer occupied) and this is often pretty close temporally to when the lights get turned off and they have to settle down in the dark. Children can misinterpret what they see and think that a monster from a story is real; in the shadows at night, silhouettes of some common household objects can then appear similar to the monsters. Unfortunately, your job is not to convince your own brain that the room is safe when dark – you have to convince the same brain that believes in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.
To make your daughter less fearful of the dark, mere explanations based on logic and abstract ideas are unlikely to work – she’s only three! As with many behaviors of children this age, they are best served by making the child feel like they have control over it. Have your child help “monster-proof” her bedroom. Ask your child what time she wants to be checked on by you or another caregiver. In doing so, you are empowering your child, which provides a sense of security. Providing them with a security blanket or stuffed animal can help with this as well. Most importantly, do not belittle your child’s fear, no matter how silly it may seem. Acknowledge it, let them know that it has its own label (“fear”) and it’s normal. Let them know that you are there for them whenever they are scared (but DO NOT let them start sleeping with you or allow them to coerce you to sleep with them).
Additionally, it is important not to make things worse. Many well-meaning parents try to convince their children to behave by stating that “the boogeyman will get them” if they misbehave. This only reinforces that the “boogeyman” exists and, if they misbehave in a minor way, they will then fear that this is a definite consequence. Use positive reinforcement for good behavior while removing rewards for bad behavior rather than using negative reinforcement to change negative behavior.
A fear of the dark is developmentally normal and likely to resolve on its own within the next year or two, but as always, ask your pediatrician if you have any questions. Good luck!
If you have a question about your child's health or happiness, ask Dr. Eichner or any of our experts by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Eichner is a general pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke Children's Primary Care-Roxboro Street in Durham. He enjoys providing care for children who are healthy as well as those with complex medical conditions. Dr. Eichner also serves as the medical director of the Duke Pediatric Diagnostic Clinic. He and his wife have lived in the Triangle since 2006.