Q. My 7-year old son is terrified to sleep in his room since he "saw a ghost" eight months ago. We pray, talk about trusting God and his guardian angels, and how the mind can play tricks on us, but nothing seems to work. We play Christian music and I sit with him for awhile before leaving the room. I even leave the closet light on, but he cries and begs me to let him sleep on the living room couch or my bedroom floor. I am out of ideas and patience.
A. It is normal for children to occasionally have bad dreams, nightmares, and night terrors between the ages of 4 and 11, but your son is dealing with a nighttime fear that seems to be escalating. Several of the ideas you have tried are good ones; however, his room is now associated with his learned insomnia pattern and is inadvertently reinforcing the problem. But you can deal with this problem without moving him to a new room. Your first step is to have a conversation with your son where you can work out a strategy together. Take him out on a date, just the two of you. Do something fun like getting ice cream or packing a picnic lunch to eat at the park.
Begin by acknowledging his fears and telling him you understand the problem is too big to handle on his own. Tell him that you are there to support him and help him through this time. Let him know that you and your husband need a good night's sleep and he does, too. This is not intended to create guilt but to promote partnership so he is motivated to help himself and you. Reassure him that you want his input in solving the problem.
Ask him to talk in detail about "the ghost" he saw. Write down what he says and try not to interrupt. Then ask what he thinks the ghost was trying to tell him. Often an imagined ghost or monster represents an unexpressed fear. Getting to the root of the fear in the conscious light of day can take away nighttime fears. You might also explain that people sometimes dream with their eyes open during what is called the partial wakening phase of sleep. He might feel better knowing that the ghost is just a bad dream.
You can also use this time to talk about your son's relationship with God. Ask if he believes that God listens to him when he prays. Help him understand that God will help him overcome his fears and that he can trust God to protect him as he sleeps. Suggest that you both take a separate quiet time to pray about his fear. In your quiet prayer, ask God to speak to your son about his fear. Finally, talk together about ideas for solving the problem.
Here are a few suggestions:
Rearrange the room: Ask if he would like to move his bedroom furniture around to make the room feel safe and comfortable. He might feel better if his bed is away from the window or further from the closet. Suggest he spend time in his room with a friend during the day. This will help him associate positive experiences with his room.
Pray Scripture: Find a verse such as, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10) or "Don't be afraid" (Luke 12:7), that he can repeat for reassurance when he is fearful.
Set up a new nighttime routine: Explain that over the next four weeks, you're going to work on this problem together. During the first week, spend an extra 20 minutes in his room after your normal bedtime routine. Pray together, and talk about the ways God is protecting him. Each week reduce your time with him by five minutes until bedtime consists of a nurturing tuck-in, a story, prayer, and a good-night song. Tell him you'll check on him from the doorway (for 20 seconds or less) in a few minutes.
Set up a reward: Facing fears can be difficult and progress should be celebrated. Set up small goals for each week such as going to sleep without a fuss or staying in bed all night. As your child accomplishes these goals, reward him with something meaningful like a new privilege, baseball cards, or a special time with you.
Seek professional help: If all these efforts fail, consult a Christian child psychologist to get some further strategies.
Q. Our children don't know that their aunt and uncle are divorced. We have an upcoming family gathering and I need some suggestions about what to tell my 5-year-old. We want to be honest with him, but we don't want him to worry about the same thing happening to us.
A. It's best for you to tell your son about the divorce before the family gathering so that he can ask his questions now. Begin by simply telling him that his aunt and uncle are divorced. You'll probably need to explain what divorce is and that it's sad for everyone involved. There's no need to go into the details of the divorce. Often the explanation that these two people didn't love each other any more and thought they would get along better if they didn't live together is sufficient. Be careful not to say anything judgmental about either the aunt or uncle. Your son is too young to understand the complexity of these situations and will only be upset and confused by the blame you may assign to people he loves.
Once you're sure he understands the basics, ask him how he feels about what you talked about. Assure him that his feelings of sadness and confusion are normal and let him know you feel the same way. Ask him to pray with you for the family, especially his aunt and uncle and children they have.
If he asks about your marriage, reassure him that you and your spouse are committed to each other. Tell him about some of the practical things you do to nurture your marriage. For example, you can say, "We work at our marriage by talking out our problems and going out on Friday date nights." If the conversation gets too intense for him, break it up into two or three shorter conversations over a period of a few days.
Follow your conversation with a family game or physical activity to let out any stress he might be feeling. Remember that we cannot protect our children forever from the realities of life. It's likely that he's heard about divorce from his classmates. This is your chance to teach empathy, support to those in need, and gratitude for the family that you are.
Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is the mother of two and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy.
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