Q: This sounds crazy but our otherwise happy and mature 10-year-old is still afraid of the dark! After we go to bed, he gets up and turns his room light back on. What can we do to help him be braver?
A: Your son's fear is quite normal for his age. In fact, when researchers interview 10- to 14-year-olds, most mention "the dark" as No. 1 or 2 on the list of things they are afraid of. The other top contenders are animals, being left alone, crowds and high places. We urge you to think back to your own childhood. Can you remember lying in bed afraid as a child?
Chiding your son will not make his fear go away. In fact, it may have the opposite effect of increasing his discomfort and worry. At the very least, he is likely to be ashamed and may be less likely to share his feelings with you in the future.
Be certain the hour before your son's bedtime is calm. Avoid activities like television, scary games, threats and punishments or family fights which might arouse fears.
Help your son arrange the minimum light in his room with which he feels comfortable -- perhaps a small table lamp or a night light -- and allow him to leave it on all night. If he talks about his fears, listen and reassure him. Do not suggest you are disappointed in him. He needs your confidence in him to overcome normal fears. When he does make progress, praise him by saying you know how proud he must feel. Learning to handle fears is an important part of the long process of growing up. You'll have a hard time rushing it.
Dr. Wilson is director of pediatric primary care of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.