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Child's Sleep Phobia

Q. My 6-year-old daughter has developed a fear of going back to sleep when she wakes up in the middle of the night. She said she is afraid a stranger will come in and take her. We take her around the house every night and lock all the doors together.

We have reassured her that she is very safe in her home. She does have a night light and we leave a light on in the kitchen where she can see. I not sure what else we can do to make her feel secure and safe. She will finally go back to sleep if we let her come in our room but we don't think that is the right thing to do for all of us. Can you give us any advise?

A. I can hardly do better than to quote directly from a very helpful website on childhood anxiety [www.childanxiety.net]: "Children's fears are often natural, and arise at specific times in their development. Children may develop fears from a traumatic experience (e.g. traumatic dog attack), but for some children, there is no clear event that causes the fear to arise. Some children become fearful simply by watching another child acting scared.

"Some children may refuse to sleep alone due to fears of creatures in their closet, while other children report feeling afraid of the dark. Children's fears are often associated with avoidance, discomfort, and physical complaints, such as rapid heart beat, stomach distress, sweaty palms, or trembling. Researchers have found certain fears arise at specific ages in all children, and these fears tend to disappear naturally with time, as the child grows older. When children's fears persist beyond the age when they are appropriate, and begin to interfere with their daily functioning, they are called phobias. Typically, children who are experiencing a phobia should be referred for treatment by a psychologist."

For children aged 3-6, anxiety related to imaginary figures (e.g., ghosts, monsters, supernatural beings, the dark, noises, sleeping alone, thunder, floods) are fairly common. In your daughter's case, she is just at the point where children usually outgrow such fears. It is of interest that the fear seems to occur in response to awakening in the middle of the night. Does this usually involve a disturbing nightmare? Does your daughter ever express fears of being abducted at other times? Are there any events in her past that might explain such a fear? (With recent child abductions making the headlines, some children may be responding vicariously to such events by developing their own phobic anxiety about strangers, kidnapping, etc.)

It would be helpful for your daughter to learn some self-soothing techniques for dealing with this fear, and perhaps to explore some of these questions in a safe and supportive environment. For all these reasons, the prudent course is to have your daughter evaluated by a child psychologist or psychiatrist, if this problem persists for more than a couple more months--or sooner, if your daughter is showing more general signs of emotional disturbance, such as poor school performance, extreme shyness, irritability, temper outbursts, etc.

In the mean time, you may want to explore the website above for further ideas and information, including some child-appropriate books that may help your daughter relax a bit when she awakens in the middle of the night. It may also be helpful to spend some time in her room when she does awaken with this fear. If she has had a nightmare, you can help reassure her that everybody has these from time to time, and that while they are very frightening, "nightmares are just scary thoughts that aren't real."

You might then try reading to her from a favorite book, or listening to some relaxing music together. You might also help your daughter make some "Safe and Sound" flash-cards that she can look at when she does feel frightened. These might have reassuring pictures and messages on them, such as a favorite cartoon character--or even you!--saying, "Bad dreams aren't real!" "My house is locked up and safe!" or "I'm a big girl, and I can take care of myself!"

If your daughter insists on coming into your bedroom, you can say, "Honey, have you used your "Safe and Sound" cards first?" Together, these approaches may help wean your daughter from the need to spend time in your room. But again, if these remedies don't help over a month or two, or if more pervasive problems are present, I'd set up a professional evaluation soon.

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October 2003

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