Q: My six-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?
A: First, I will say that I hope you’ve learned something from this experience. 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 those 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. As a child, when 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 developed a theory about children and illnesses: the more fun it is for a child to be sick, the more often said child will become sick. I’m not referring to manipulation; I’m talking about simple association.
The answer to your question about how to handle your six-year-old’s scary thoughts at night depends on how many times per night on average you have to tuck your daughter back into bed. If it is less than a dozen, then just tuck her back in. Believe me, this too will pass. It is 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-in ritual again. If you say anything, make it along these lines: “I have told you all I know to tell you about your scary thoughts, sweetie my lovebug (which, in fact, you have). I don’t know of 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, then give her a reassuring good-night kiss and leave. Repeat that procedure as many times as you need to until it “takes,” which may be a dozen times on any given night. Assuming you remain calm and resolute, I predict a two- to three-week cure—which in the overall scheme of things is quite insignificant.
It’s very 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, 99 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.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.