Q: I need advice on helping my 5-year-old son with his fears. He does not like to go upstairs by himself. At night he tells me he does not want to go to bed because he is afraid of bad guys or wolves or scorpions. I try not to quash his emotion, and say something like “Scorpions — that sounds scary.” Then I explain that scorpions do not live in our climate. Once he finally gets into his bed, he regularly wakes at 3 a.m. and climbs into our bed, saying he is scared. How can I help him deal with his fears and get my bed to myself so I can get some sleep?
A: Let me preface this by saying that it is important to note what I do not know here. Children show signs of anxiety and irrational fears for a wide variety of reasons, such as transitions (new school), deaths, births, friend issues and stress in the home. There also can be underlying reasons, such as sensory issues, learning issues and executive-functioning issues. Long story short: Always check with a good pediatrician when trying to assess your child’s worries.
With that said, you are not alone in having a child with fears. There are so many parents out there who contact me full of worry over their children’s worries. And nothing can make parents feel out of control like watching their child freak out about “irrational” ideas such as wolves and scorpions.
I place “irrational” in quotes, though, because a big part of understanding children’s worries is accepting that the worry is real for them.
When children are stressed or tired or in transition or don’t want to be separated from someone they love, their brains get all churned up. They become alarmed, and it is not something they can control. All humans are built to feel scared and worried when we are even threatened with separation, children even more so. Staying close to caregivers is a biological need in children, and it is completely normal.
Children’s brains (as well as adults’) are sense-making machines. If your son is worried about not being with you because of bedtime, his brain will seek something else to (unconsciously) blame for the panic. Maybe he saw a movie, cartoon or even a commercial with a scorpion, and instead of saying, “Mom, I feel insecure and nervous when the lights go out and I can’t see you,” his brain jumps to: “I cannot sleep! There is a scorpion in my room!” Young children don’t have the maturity to make sense of all their big feelings. The vulnerability involved when you leave your son alone in a dark room sends him into a panic, even if you are right there in the house. Even if there are no scorpions. Even if you have explained that there are no scorpions over and over. That is how powerful these emotions are: They defy reason. Adults who are afraid of bridges but who have never had anything bad happen to them on a bridge will admit to not knowing why or how the phobia began, but their anxiety is 100 percent real.
How can we help your son?
By understanding that this is an emotional and not a behavioral issue, you can become more empathetic toward your son. His brain is hijacked by his alarm; he is not trying to manipulate you. When we work from empathy instead of behavior, we switch from asking, “How can I get my son to leave me alone and sleep?” to “How can I help my son feel safe?”
One thing we know for sure is that logic, rational thinking and science-based solutions (“I explain that scorpions do not live in our climate”) are not doing the trick.
So if we cannot talk to him about his logic and rational thought, what can we talk to him about? His feelings. The No. 1 way to help an anxious child feel safer is by zeroing in on the feeling and understanding it, which you already do. So just knock off the rationalizing at the end and say something like: “It would be scary to think there is a scorpion in your room. I get why you are scared!”
That way, you are not going into the likelihood of the scorpion existing; you are zeroing in on how your son feels.
There is a common misunderstanding that talking about a fear will aggravate that fear in children, but it simply isn’t true. In fact, the opposite is true. As soon as your son sees and hears that you understand him, his brain will instantly relax. It says: “Ahhh, Mom is listening. She gets me. I am safe.” This is the essence of therapy. As adults (and children) let out all of their worries, a compassionate listener allows the brain and heart to feel free of the worry, free of holding on to it.
Another way to help him fall asleep away from you (remember, separation is the key issue to his alarm and panic) is to find ways to be close to him when not physically with him. Reflect on our senses and start there. Pillowcases that smell like you, pictures next to his bed, music you both like, rubbing a little lavender oil on the soles of his feet — there are many ways to calmly connect to him before bedtime.
This may take a while, so be ready to stay patient and consistent. And although this may be an unpopular thing to say, ask yourself: Do you really care about him getting into bed with you at 3 a.m., or do you think you should care about it? At some point in American culture, we have decided that “good” children don’t stray from their beds once moved from a crib, but children regularly pop in and out of their beds well into elementary school (and sometimes beyond).
Remember: You are the parent. There is no one else in the world your child wants to be closer to than you. This is not actually a problem or even abnormal. In fact, I worry about children who fear going to their parents in the middle of the night. The bed hopping, while inconvenient, may not be a crisis worth much parental effort.
Good luck and don’t be afraid to reach out to a good therapist for support if the situation does not get better or worsens.