It’s one of the most difficult areas of parenting: when your children won’t go to bed. This makes bedtime an big chore for millions of parents. Of course in many ways, kids can’t really help it when they create bedtime drama, since their young minds are wired to test the boundaries of parenting. But their minds are also wired to have a specific fear that often prevents them from getting to sleep:  fear of the dark.

Why Kids are Afraid of the Dark

Children develop a fear of the dark around ages 2 or 3, which is right around the time their imagination begins to come online. They’re just starting to realize how vast the world is and unlike adults, they have few inhibitions about letting their minds run wild. Then there are the things in modern life that exacerbate the problem, like television. Even when you don’t think the programs are scary, they may be interpreted differently by a young child. Since TV is inherently stimulating, some kids have a tough time turning that activity off when they go to bed.

What Not to Do

Don’t make light of your child’s fears by saying it’s “silly” or “nothing to worry about.” This doesn’t really stop your child from being afraid (and remember, they still don’t have control over their emotions). It does make your child think he or she should be ashamed of being scared.

Don’t show your child your frustration about his or her fears, or tell them that they should know monsters and goblins aren’t real. The invocation of “monsters” can be a stand-in for things that are all too real, like violence and death, both of which figure prominently on the news. The fear of such things is real to the child, and may be a manifestation of their preoccupation with fears that something bad will happen.

It’s always tempting to calm their fears by having your children climb into bed with your or with a big sister or brother. But this is usually not something you want to make a habit of. You need to give your kids the tools they need to conquer their fears. This builds confidence in a young child.

What to Do

Spend some time with your child, calming him or her and letting them know you will always be there for them as a parent. Explain to them what fear is and how it’s a normal emotion.

Offer comfort by giving the child a favored item, like a blanket or plush animal, and let them pick which one they want.

Give your child options without inviting them into your bed. For instance, ask them if they want you to check on them and let them set the time. They will be reassured that you will turn up to protect them and keep them safe.

Kids need to wind down at night, so eliminate TV for the hours before bedtime. Also no video games or scary books that may overstimulate the imagination.

Make sure that your child’s fear of the dark isn’t about something that is going on in your lives, like the death of a beloved grandparent or beloved pet, a divorce or separation, or an illness. If so, don’t hesitate to get your child help through a licensed psychologist or counselor. You don’t have to go it alone.