I was once asked to see a 14-year-old boy who had a variety of fears. His parents also were fearful. But the principal problem in the family was his nightmares which led him to come into his parents’ bed in the middle of the night. This had gone on every night for as long as anyone could remember. He was an only child, for obvious reasons.
Parents communicate all kinds of ideas to their children: religious and political, for example, but all sorts of other attitudes and ideas about how to live. Phobics tend to communicate those ideas that they themselves learned from their parents. Some of these ideas are subtle, but they all point in the same direction, that life is dangerous. You are safer at home than outside, they suggest in a number of ways. Also, the further away you are from home, the less safe you are. You are safer with family members than with other people. Most important, they communicate the idea that feelings can rise to the level where they can get out of control. This is why some people can have what sounds like a panic attack and be unperturbed, and others interpret these feelings as ominous and threatening; in other words, a panic attack.
Most of the phobic patients I have seen go to considerable lengths not to be overprotective of their children. They recognize that their parents ended up making them anxious people by warning them against everything. They do not want their children to grow up the same way. So, they have their kids go on sleep-over dates, even when their sleeping away from home makes them worry. They try to let their children play sports and engage in activities that seem to them vaguely dangerous. But it is hard for them to compensate for other concerns. Because they are afraid of their own feelings, they tend to overreact to their children’s distress. They do not realize they are doing so. When they hear their very young child cry, they imagine the child is in more distress than he/she really is. Consequently, they get upset when their child cannot be comforted, which happens inevitably from time to time.
How to handle a very young child crying in the middle of the night: Imagine an infant who wakes up in the middle of the night, who is changed, and walked and fed and changed again, but who cries as soon as he/she is put down. I have no trouble imagining such a child because that is what our first child did. Every night, my wife and I sat quietly in the next room, holding on tightly to the arms of our chairs, listening to our daughter cry. After a while she went to sleep. Our pediatrician told us she was just one of those kids who had to cry herself to sleep. After a while, I realized that what sounded like a plaintive cry expressed more a feeling of irritability than anguish.
I strongly encourage parents not to keep picking up such a, infant. Doing so delays the child finally going to sleep. Even worse, if you wait five minutes, then ten minutes, then fifteen minutes to pick the child up, you are training him/her to cry for a longer and longer period of time. When a child wakes up and cries, you should pick the child up right away to feed it and change it. If the child does not need feeding or changing, you should not pick up the child until after it has stopped crying. YOU SHOULD NOT COMFORT THE CHILD BY ALLOWING IT TO FALL ASLEEP IN YOUR BED. Developing that habit runs the risk of the child coming into your bed for all sorts of reasons, and then over time resisting sleeping in his/her own bed. It does not usually take 14 years for parents to put an end to this habit; but such a habit is never easy to break, and it is avoidable.
Nightmares: Nightmares are simply one more bad reason for allowing a child to sleep in his/her parents’ bed. This is one of those situations where phobic parents unwittingly communicate certain unhealthy ideas to their children. Allowing a frightened child to come into his/her parents’ bed suggests :
- The child cannot calm down on its own. (Remember, the panic attack is experienced as a feeling that will not subside on its own but will spiral out of control)
- That being with the parents is safer than being alone. (Phobic patients are often afraid of being left alone.)
I know none of this goes through the parent’s mind when the child is allowed to stay in their bed, but it is surely what the child perceives. A parent being “too tired” to take the child back to its own room, is no excuse.
This is what you should do:
If possible, the child who has just awakened from a nightmare should be sent directly back to his/her bed.
If the child is too upset to go back alone, a parent should get up and accompany the child.
If the child is too upset to be left alone, the parent should sit with the child until he/she falls asleep.
All this requires an effort, but in the long run insisting on the child falling asleep in his/her own bed will save a lot of effort and aggravation.
I told the parents of the 14-year-old boy described above, that they must insist on his going back to bed after he wakes up in the middle of the night.
“But he is really very, very upset,” the mother said to me.
I probably said something in an outraged tone about his being FOURTEEN YEARS OLD!
It took weeks for me to convince the parents that there was no alternative. Even then, what they finally said to him was, “Dr. Neuman won’t let you come into our bed anymore.” They felt so guilty about rejecting him that they had to blame me!
He slept through every night from that night on. His other symptoms took a longer time to go away, but he became obviously less fearful, according to his parents, in many different ways.(c) Fredric Neuman 2012 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog.