Is this a parenting problem or a marriage problem?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 10, 2010 06:00 AM

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 Hi Barbara,

 My 11-year old daughter (and only child) has developed a fear about being alone in her bedroom at night. She insists that someone sleep in her room all night long, and since I refuse to do so, my husband has been doing it. He sleeps in the other twin bed in her room, while I sleep alone in our bedroom. If you can believe it, this has been happening for one year! I'm not sure whether it's just become a habit or if she really is scared during the night. She can't seem to articulate what scares her, though does mention robbers and her fear of someone breaking into the house. We have a dog, though offering to put the dog in her room doesn't seem to make a difference. Over the years, we've had similar sleep issues, but not for a long time and not to this extent. As she's heading off to middle school this fall, I'd like to put a stop to this. What are your thoughts?

From: Julie, Wellesley

 

 

Dear Julie,

I think this is manipulative on your daughter's part. That doesn't mean she's doing this with malicious intent; I don't believe that for a second. But at this age, she knows she is behaving in a way that is not age appropriate, and the kind of fears you are talking about are also not age appropriate. That leaves a few possibilities:

(a) Does she have other needs that are not age-appropriate? If she can't voice her fears, that is all the more reason to suspect they are not real. My best suggestion is to seek professional help,

(b) Are there issues in your family? It seems like -- and this might not be conscious on her part -- that she is trying to drive a wedge between you and your husband. Does she sense on some level that your marriage is having difficulty? Another reason to seek professional help.

(c) Is she lacking for parental attention? This sure as heck is getting it for her but at whose expense? If your husband will agree, let her know that he is no longer able to sleep in her room and find other ways to give her the attention she is demanding.

If she has fears, you need to know what they are so you can help her with them, specifically, including getting professional help. Let her know she is welcome to sleep in your room if she wakes up in the middle of the night. Make her a pallet on the floor -- blankets, a pillow -- and let her know that she is welcome to come into your room and sleep there whenever she needs to, but not to wake you or your husband.

Frankly, I'm not convinced this is a parenting issue; I think this is an issue in your marriage. Either way, I suggest professional help.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.




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7 comments so far...
  1. A whole year? No wonder this mother is fed up. I think this could be due to a whole range of issues, including some sort of social/developmental disability, but we frankly don't know whether she really does have issues in her marriage beyond this. I actually remember having an acute fear of robbers or kidnappers breaking into my house at around that age; unfortunately, I simply think that's part of the violence-obsessed media we live with. However, I certainly never asked my parents to sleep in the same room as me. This is problematic; hopefully counseling will prove useful.

    Posted by Elizabeth May 10, 10 08:19 AM
  1. Agreed. I can see maybe a one time thing if she watched a scary movie or saw something on the news, but an entire year? I think professional help is definitely in order - for the daughter because she has had this fear for so long, and for the parents who think it is ok to let this continue and not know how to deal with it. You won't get the answers you need from an advice column.

    Posted by Dad May 10, 10 08:38 AM
  1. Have you considered the possibility that she was molested? While it's not the only answer, when a child's behavior changes like this it's always something to consider and it's unusualy for an 11 year old girl to suddenly develop such a fear.

    Perhaps you should find help in how to best ask her and if God forbid it's true, find her proper medical and legal help.

    Posted by JT May 10, 10 09:52 AM
  1. You refuse to sleep in her room, and so your husband does, every night for a year?

    You are obviously not at all on the same page with parenting... without going into what might be going on with your daughter, this seems really clear. And it's not good. Kids can tell when the parents are not a team, and that means they feel less secure. Presenting a united front means more consistency in the home, and kids of all ages crave consistency and boundaries: without boundaries, they push and kick looking for where those boundaries might be. Without consistency, they feel at sea -- the world is less safe. So you and your husband need to work this out and come with a plan to deal with your daughter's fears *together.*

    Posted by jlen May 10, 10 11:12 AM
  1. You need some professional help on this one--all of you. I think your marriage is in trouble and your daughter either has a serious problem or is playing you off each other. Good luck.

    Posted by ash May 10, 10 02:23 PM
  1. Does your husband go to bed at the same time as your daughter?

    My 4-year old always asks me to sleep with her, but I tell her 8pm is not my bed time, I won't be going to bed until another 3-4 hours.

    Posted by dk May 10, 10 04:54 PM
  1. This actually sounds like me at 11, although my parents never slept in my room. I believed my house was haunted, and that the ghost was targeting me. It was probably my imagination, although to this day, I am not sure. I would wake up usually around 2am, terrified, and sneak into their room and sleep at the foot of their bed. My parents first tried getting me a nightlight, but it cast shadows that freaked me out more. They tried to have my dog sleep with me, but they'd have to close my bedroom door and I couldn't stand that. Ultimately, they did two things - keep my door open and their door open at night, so I'd feel safer that they'd hear me scream and that I could more quickly escape my room and run to theirs. And they sent me to a child psychiatrist. (I also was forbidden to watch anything even mildly scary.) And I was allowed to fall asleep with my bedroom light on, if I wanted to (and they would turn off the light once I was asleep.) Ultimately, I grew out of it. I would say the father shouldn't be sleeping in the child's room, but you should trust that the child's fears are legitimate. I agree a child psychiatrist will help, and I'd try some of the other methods my parents used, since ultimately they worked on me.

    Posted by FJ May 10, 10 07:24 PM
 
7 comments so far...
  1. A whole year? No wonder this mother is fed up. I think this could be due to a whole range of issues, including some sort of social/developmental disability, but we frankly don't know whether she really does have issues in her marriage beyond this. I actually remember having an acute fear of robbers or kidnappers breaking into my house at around that age; unfortunately, I simply think that's part of the violence-obsessed media we live with. However, I certainly never asked my parents to sleep in the same room as me. This is problematic; hopefully counseling will prove useful.

    Posted by Elizabeth May 10, 10 08:19 AM
  1. Agreed. I can see maybe a one time thing if she watched a scary movie or saw something on the news, but an entire year? I think professional help is definitely in order - for the daughter because she has had this fear for so long, and for the parents who think it is ok to let this continue and not know how to deal with it. You won't get the answers you need from an advice column.

    Posted by Dad May 10, 10 08:38 AM
  1. Have you considered the possibility that she was molested? While it's not the only answer, when a child's behavior changes like this it's always something to consider and it's unusualy for an 11 year old girl to suddenly develop such a fear.

    Perhaps you should find help in how to best ask her and if God forbid it's true, find her proper medical and legal help.

    Posted by JT May 10, 10 09:52 AM
  1. You refuse to sleep in her room, and so your husband does, every night for a year?

    You are obviously not at all on the same page with parenting... without going into what might be going on with your daughter, this seems really clear. And it's not good. Kids can tell when the parents are not a team, and that means they feel less secure. Presenting a united front means more consistency in the home, and kids of all ages crave consistency and boundaries: without boundaries, they push and kick looking for where those boundaries might be. Without consistency, they feel at sea -- the world is less safe. So you and your husband need to work this out and come with a plan to deal with your daughter's fears *together.*

    Posted by jlen May 10, 10 11:12 AM
  1. You need some professional help on this one--all of you. I think your marriage is in trouble and your daughter either has a serious problem or is playing you off each other. Good luck.

    Posted by ash May 10, 10 02:23 PM
  1. Does your husband go to bed at the same time as your daughter?

    My 4-year old always asks me to sleep with her, but I tell her 8pm is not my bed time, I won't be going to bed until another 3-4 hours.

    Posted by dk May 10, 10 04:54 PM
  1. This actually sounds like me at 11, although my parents never slept in my room. I believed my house was haunted, and that the ghost was targeting me. It was probably my imagination, although to this day, I am not sure. I would wake up usually around 2am, terrified, and sneak into their room and sleep at the foot of their bed. My parents first tried getting me a nightlight, but it cast shadows that freaked me out more. They tried to have my dog sleep with me, but they'd have to close my bedroom door and I couldn't stand that. Ultimately, they did two things - keep my door open and their door open at night, so I'd feel safer that they'd hear me scream and that I could more quickly escape my room and run to theirs. And they sent me to a child psychiatrist. (I also was forbidden to watch anything even mildly scary.) And I was allowed to fall asleep with my bedroom light on, if I wanted to (and they would turn off the light once I was asleep.) Ultimately, I grew out of it. I would say the father shouldn't be sleeping in the child's room, but you should trust that the child's fears are legitimate. I agree a child psychiatrist will help, and I'd try some of the other methods my parents used, since ultimately they worked on me.

    Posted by FJ May 10, 10 07:24 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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