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Nighttime is When the Shadows are Unleashed

By Sheryl Paul
March 26, 2013

Many problems later in life - like insomnia and anxiety - are caused by parents' failure or inability to attune to their kids' deeper needs, especially around bedtime.

A mother holding her son with a stuffed animal next to a kitchen table. “Hold me for one more minute, Mommy.” My computer beckons: the emails and forum posts piling up, the new program yearning to be completed, the blank screen calling to receive the latest thoughts birthed from my day with clients. But my son’s sweet voice is stronger than the need to work and create. I lie back down and within moments feel my soul unfurl into the delicious state of being that only happens when I stop and breathe. He wraps my arms around him and I see him smile, not just with his mouth but with his entire body, as if his soul he’s saying, Mommy is here. All is well. 

I no longer hold him every night, but either I or my husband stay in the room until he’s asleep. For years he suffered from night fears: as soon as we turned off the lights, everything from black holes to dinosaurs would plague his creative/anxious mind and he needed the comfort of our presence to reassure him that he was safe. While that’s no longer the case, it’s clear to us that he still needs us close. And while it’s a sacrifice at times, we both feel strongly that it’s the most loving choice we can make: an investment of time and energy now that will help create his emotional resiliency for the future. He can respond with the maturity of a twenty year old during the day, but something happens at night that opens up the edges of his soul.

Perhaps it’s because nighttime, especially for children, is a liminal zone when the daytime defenses fall away, rendering them more vulnerable to the fears that lurk in their underworld. Nighttime is when the shadows are unleashed and the veil that separates worlds grows thinner. Children, especially highly sensitive ones, may see and hear things that we can’t see and hear. In the quiet of night, they may become aware of portals and realms that defy explanation. If a loving adult isn’t there to help a child understand them or blow them away, the result can only be fear. Fear pushed down. Fear entrenched in unconscious layers of body. Fear morphed into anxiety later in life.

I’ve seen it in my own child and I’ve seen it in many of my clients. Most of my clients (who are also highly sensitive, which means highly creative and highly anxious), describe feeling terrified at night. Sometimes their parents would allow them to climb into bed with them and sometimes they wouldn’t, but the overarching description of bedtime is one of terror.

The mainstream message says: “Kids are resilient.” That may be true in some areas, but if it’s categorically true why are  44 million Americans relying on Xanax to get through their day and 58% of Americans suffering from insomnia several nights a week? I don’t think very highly of the mainstream message when it comes to many things, but especially when it comes to parenting. The proof is in the pudding, and I don’t see many emotionally healthy adults walking around.

The mainstream message says: “Kids have to learn how to be independent. You’re coddling him too much and robbing him of his ability to rely on himself.” My practice is full of adults who, as children, were “encouraged” (i.e. forced) to be independent and only ended up crying themselves to sleep every night. When the crying stopped, they shut down, and now have to work hard to soften back into those hardened places. I don’t believe that we teach independence by hanging our kids on the clothesline to dry during their most vulnerable moments. We teach it when we see that they have the capacity to stretch themselves and impart our trust that they’re capable of handling a hard situation.

Last week, for example, my husband woke up with a severe case of food poisoning. He texted me to call the babysitter because he knew that he wouldn’t be able to watch the boys while I had clients. At 8am, I texted her, but I didn’t have much hope that she would be available on such short notice. Then I had the idea to ask Everest if he would be willing to help and babysit Asher. Friday is my short day with only three clients, and I knew he could do it. His entire face brightened at being offered this responsibility and the chance to help. He immediately began planning the morning, setting aside special toys for Asher, creating special games, thinking about snacks. At five minutes to nine I walked upstairs with my big boy at the helm. Before leaving I said to him, “I trust you completely.” And I do. Everest is one of the most trustworthy, thoughtful, creative, compassionate people I’ve ever known. I knew he would bring all of these qualities to his first day on the job.

And I was right. I checked in with him every hour and they were soaring, both of them in their highest selves. At the second hour he called up to me, “We’re doing great, Mommy. Don’t worry! I just gave Asher a banana.” And at the end of the third hour, we all celebrated. So if that isn’t a display of independence, I don’t know what is.

Let’s continue with the mainstream messages about why we need to leave our sensitive kids alone at bedtime. I often hear, “Don’t put your kids above your marriage. If you’re spending your evening sitting in the room while your son falls asleep, when are you seeing your husband?” Yes, my husband and I miss spending evenings together, but without divulging too much information, suffice to say that we find creative ways of connecting. Where there is a will, there is a way, and my husband and I are deeply committed to maintaining our connection in all ways. I’m quite certain that he would agree that our marriage hasn’t suffered because we stay with Everest while he falls asleep.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Perhaps in some other era or some other life Everest would be falling asleep surrounded by cousins or between the cushion of safe older siblings. Perhaps he would have sat by the fire while an uncle or grandfather carved a tool or played an instrument, lulled by the silence and stars until his eyelids naturally closed. But we don’t have a village; we have two parents – stretched as thin as all parents of young children are – who recognize that these years are short in the grand scheme of life, and if sitting in the room with our son for an hour each night will help him create a sense of safety inside, if the shadows can be transformed from demons into angels under the warmth and consistency of our watch, it’s well-worth it. The emails can wait. We will stand guard over you, our precious boy, for as long as you need us. And then we will watch you fly.


Note: I know that there are many kids who are truly fine with going to sleep alone. Both of my sons are highly sensitive, which carries a  unique set of challenges and gifts. In writing this article, I am in no way judging parents whose kids or babies fall asleep alone or in a separate room. As I often state on this site, each child is different and each family is different. I’m sharing my experience here as I believe it’s an approach that is met with a great deal of judgement in our culture – especially with an older child – so if one parent reads this and is able to trust that staying with their child is the most loving choice for their family, my heart will smile.


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