Handling Bedtime When Your Child is Scared

Reader Question: My 6-year-old daughter watched too many episodes of a certain TV show when she was sick and now she doesn’t want to go to sleep at night because she is having scary thoughts related to the show. She will come out of her room again and again complaining of these thoughts (mostly before she has gone to sleep; rarely in the middle of the night) and want to be tucked back in. How would you recommend handling this?

rosemond First, I must say that I hope you’ve learned something here. Sick children, especially if they are feverish, are in a mentally and emotionally vulnerable state in which they are likely to misinterpret and exaggerate the significance of otherwise mundane events. The only media they should be exposed to are media that will calm their central nervous systems. Exciting television shows of any nature do not qualify.

Let me point out to the audience-at-large that sick children actually did manage to get well before television. When, as a child, I became ill, I stayed in bed, colored in my coloring books, read, and listened to the radio. In fact, I was not allowed out of bed except to use the bathroom, eat, or throw up (somewhat in that order). I have a theory: The more fun it is for a child to be sick, the more often the child will become sick. I’m not referring to manipulation; I’m talking about simple association.

The answer to your question turns on how many times per night on average you have to tuck your daughter back in bed. If less than a dozen, then for Pete’s (whoever he is and wherever he may be) sake, just tuck her back in. Believe me, this too will pass. It’s nothing more than a fairly common bump in the road of rearing. In the meantime, you do not want to turn this into a “disciplinary issue” by getting upset and punishing. Just stay calm and be the parent. When she comes out of her room and says she’s afraid, calmly lead her back and do the tucking ritual again. If you say anything, make it along these lines: “I’ve told you all I know to tell you about your scary thoughts, sweetie my lovebug [Which, in fact, you have]. I don’t have anything more to tell you [Which, in fact, you don’t]. So, let’s go back to bed.”

Do not be deterred by any increase in the volume of her protests, including crying. Just tuck her in without any more talk, give her a reassuring kiss, and leave. Repeat that procedure until it “takes,” which may take a dozen times on any given night. Assuming you remain calm and resolute, I predict a two-to-three week cure; in the overall scheme of things, insignificant.

It’s important that you stop talking to your daughter about her scary thoughts. As was the case when you were a child and had scary thoughts, ninety-nine percent of such things are nothing more than random and therefore meaningless “mind burps.” Talking to a child about such things increases the likelihood that the thoughts and feelings in question will worsen and become a form of drama.

John Rosemond

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at www.rosemond.com

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