Psychology ETDs

Publication Date

Summer 6-6-2023


Children’s fear of the dark—as well as its more extreme manifestation in the form of nyctophobia—is a major problem for many families with smaller children. Different treatments exist for nyctophobia, but no consensus has yet emerged on why these treatments work or on what facets of the treatments are more effective than others. Several methodologies and assessments allow for the quantitative measurement of children’s “normative,” or typically developing, fear of the dark, but most were created and conducted from an adult perspective. How children themselves explain what makes darkness scary remains largely unknown, in large part because children have traditionally been regarded as relatively flawed, if not wholly unreliable, informants concerning their own experience. Furthermore, relatively little research on fear of the dark has been conducted on non-Western populations. The purpose of this study was to investigate how preschoolers themselves make sense of fear of darkness. To answer this question, I recruited 4- to 5-year-old Russian children who were afraid of the dark according to parental report (n = 31). I conducted interviews with these children through Zoom, and two coders analyzed children’s transcripts, employing reflexive thematic analysis (TA). Analysis generated two overarching themes: What makes darkness more scary? and What makes darkness less scary? Three specific themes addressed the first overarching question: Darkness is scary because various entities inhabit it; Something bad can happen in the dark; and Darkness is scary because it is darkness. Three more specific themes addressed the second overarching question: Dealing with fear of darkness with people and objects; Dealing with fear of the dark with action; and Dealing with fear of the dark with nice qualities. I discuss all of these themes in the context of Russian folklore tradition, school-age children’s horror story-telling, and causal theories of how fear of the dark develops. I also address possible ways in which children’s lived experience in this study may inform a richer understanding of the nature of their ability to differentiate fantasy from reality, an ability that is still undergoing developmental consolidation in early childhood. Finally, findings from this study may inform a clinical understanding of why and for whom certain treatments of nyctophobia work, in addition to shedding light in general on children’s lived experience and sense-making concerning fear of darkness.

Degree Name


Level of Degree


Department Name


First Committee Member (Chair)

David Witherington

Second Committee Member

Steven Verney

Third Committee Member

Jan Armstrong




children, qualitative study, emotional development, fear of the dark, multicultural research, russian children

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Included in

Psychology Commons