Doctor Betti
Dr. Betti Hertzberg Ressler is a Board Certified Pediatrician on staff at Miami Children's Hospital. Dr. Hertzberg developed the toilet training video "Let's Go Potty." She is the co-author of "The Doctor's Book of Home Remedies for Children."

Afraid of the Dark

Question: My 8 year old is afraid of the dark. I have read that it is normal. I understand that, but what can I do to help the situation? Melody

Answer: Pediatrician Dr. Betti Hertzberg's Answer:
Dear Melody,
We all feel better about our fears and phobias when we talk about them. Perhaps there was something that your child experienced recently or when younger that caused a renewal of the fears that were felt at that time. Encourage your child to talk about his or her fears.

Most fears, i.e., strangers, monsters, dark places which are common in the toddler years will gradually diminish with time. There are times when fear remains. Excessive persistent fear with unreasonable anxiety to certain situations or life events may lead to phobias.

As parents, we need to be careful not to introduce fear when none is present or hasn't been expressed by the child. A good example of this would be "don't be afraid of the dark" or "don't worry, monsters are not hiding in the dark." These may suggest fear instead of allaying it. As a child's imagination grows, so do their fears.

Actions and reactions of parents and siblings can provoke fear in any child. If someone close to your child shows fear to a particular situation, he or she may internalize those same fears. If parents are anxious, the child may assume the role of being anxious. Insecurity follows.

How is the best way to deal with fear of being in a dark room? First, have your child tell you what about the dark room makes him or her scared. It's usually not a good idea to force a child to confront fears in a head-on manner. Forcing a child to remain in a room or any situation may feed his or her fear and may even lead to phobias.

Don't tease or laugh about your child's fears. They are very real to him or her and should be taken seriously. Let your child have control of what makes him or her scared i.e.: "the dark room" Offer a nightlight or other comforting or familiar object.

Avoid phrases like "only babies are scared of the dark." Instead, use support and understanding from gradual exposure to "the dark room." As your child feels more comfortable and less fearful of being alone in a dark room (usually the bedroom), continue being supportive. Let him or her know that you won't let anything (dark room or other) hurt them. Beware also of allowing support to encourage overdependence. Children discover quickly that expressing fear can also be a sure way to get parents attention.

Review stresses at home or school that may be responsible for this fear. It may be that it's not being in the "dark," but rather a fear of separation. Monitor television viewing. The impact of some programs on your child may trigger fear, showing up any number of ways.

Be aware of other symptoms that your child has. Eating, sleeping and school performance problems could have an impact on how your child deals with certain fears.

With any fear or anxiety that interferes with normal daily life i.e.: refuses to go into his dark bedroom, scared to fall asleep due to fear of the dark, etc., it may be best to seek professional help.

Happily, most childhood fears will resolve with love, support and boosting of your child's self esteem.

Happy parenting!
Dr. Betti

Also see:

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  • Can a pediatrician comfortably prescribe and manage ADHD medication or is it better suited to a psychiatrist?
  • Ask Dr. Betti your questions

    This information is not intended to be a substitute for visiting your pediatrician. If you or your child has specific concerns, you should see your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.