Note: I wrote this post when Everest was nine years old. He’s now eighteen. Of course, we’re long past the time when we would stay with him while he fell asleep at night, but I’m happy to share that we still value connected time before bed. And I’m also happy to report that my hypothesis did bear out: the security we were able to give Everest by attending to his nighttime fears and daytime anxieties eventually allowed him to, quite literally, fly.
I’m sharing this post again because it speaks to a place that I’ve been hearing a lot about in my work lately: the grief of recognizing how often you were left alone as a child to manage your big feelings, especially your anxiety and terror. The healing work, as I understand it, includes being able to time travel back to your young self and accompany them in the way that they needed back then. Psyche is less aware of time than we think, and when we’re able to meet these tender, scared, and lonely places with our current loving, compassionate and grounded adult self, true healing occurs.
I’m also sharing it because, as many of you know who follow my blog, I’m in my own grieving process as we’re in the countdown until Everest leaves for college. Sometimes the grief feels unbearable, like a tsunami that will overpower me. But, as I often teach with grief, when we surrender fully to it, the wave crescendos and passes through. And what we’re left with is love.
As I’m writing these words, Everest is sitting on the couch across from me working on a paper for school (with Taylor Swift in the background, I might add 😉). I don’t really understand how he transformed from the boy in the photo above to the young man sitting across from me. Does he still embody the adjectives that I used to describe him in this post? Blessedly, yes. His essence is the same. As such, my heart breaks with grief and gratitude, ache and pride in equal measure. And as much as I don’t want him to go, I’m also giddy with excitement for him to experience the expansiveness of college.
As you read through this post, I’d love to hear in the comments what nighttime was like for you as a child. If it was challenging, how was that challenge met or not met? How did your parents or caregivers respond to your anxiety, fear, or terror? And what is night like for you now?
“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 lips 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 nighttime 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 children 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.
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.
Final 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.
Thank you for this. I have two daughters—one who sounds very similar to your son (nighttime fears) and one who typically sleeps 12 hours straight. Both girls slept snuggled between my husband and I from birth until they were toddlers—as they grew into their own unique sleeping patterns.
It was wonderful for me to read this thoughtful reminder that some children just need us a little closer at night. Lately my older daughter has needed me even more that usual at night, and so those thoughts have been creeping into my head: am I doing her a disservice by staying next to her until she falls asleep? But your words helped me this morning to continue to trust my intuitive mothering sense.
Yes, trusting your intuitive mothering sense is the most reliable expert!
When I was about 6, I don’t remember much– I remember one night after we moved to NJ for a short time- my mom put me to bed (she read Beatrix Potter with me first, which I adored). I was definitely afraid because then I did what I now remember I did every night for a while- I covered myself with the comforter and tucked all the edges around me. My mom said I could do that as long as I could breathe – clearly I could- but it never occurred to me that she could have stayed. For all I know she could have in my earlier years and then it stopped, I just don’t remember.
I know this fear continued when we moved back to Colorado and I remember imagining that I had armor that would protect me as I slept, but my mind rationalized that one set would not be enough ( I had seen swords in movies get through the cracks in the armor), so I imagined I had layers upon layers of armor that would protect me as I slept. My mom also gave me a Teddy Ruxpin (??) that would play stories to me that did help me fall asleep.
As I grew older, after seeing arachnophobia around 7, I was intensely afraid of the house spiders we had in Conifer, Co. There were a lot! I told my mom and stepdad I couldn’t sleep in my room when there would be a spider on the ceiling or walls. I think they helped me remove them a couple times but unfortunately, they then decided I had to fend for myself. They once found me sleeping in the living room because of the huge spider I refused to sleep with in my room- I feel like I was in my early teens by then . If I went to my dad’s house, he would take care of them for me (sigh). But after getting caught in the living room I hatched a plan to begin using a broom to attack them (and give me some distance) back at home. I remember my body shaking from the adrenaline after my spider battles. I tried to make light of it and talk about it as funny stories to my friends at school with a hyperbolic tone- but it truthfully stressed me out a lot.
Anyway, cheers to parents who support their kids in feeling safe at bedtime. As an almost middle aged adult, when I move to a new place alone, I am terrified at night for months at a time. I will be moving soon for the first time after being on Lexapro (which has helped other contexts of my anxiety, maybe it will help that as well?)
I agree with your belief about pre-sleep and children. I would not like falling asleep crying myself. Our sons are now 27 and 29 and our marriage has survived 30+ years. It’s all about stages of life and how they pass and choices a person makes.
We co-sleep in the same room as our 5 month old sons. As young children my mother would often lay with my brother and I so we could fall asleep. We also sought the comfort of “the big bed” (my parents bed) after nightmares or during powerful rain & thunderstorms. I remember to this day how comforting that was, I felt so safe. I want my boys to have that too. I don’t know yet if my boys are highly sensitive or not but I’m in 100% in agreement with you, every child is unique and their time as children is fleeting. Being in each moment, key and all the other stuff can wait. Thank you for the reminder.
Thank you, Kate. It’s always heartwarming to hear about kids who were allowed to seek support in “the big bed”. It’s more common nowadays but much less common when we were growing up. You were lucky!
I was an only child who suffered from night terrors well into my 30’s. My parents were not aware of my fears when I was little, as I was afraid to tell them. I had this idea that if I told anyone my fears out loud, then the bogeymen would know for sure that I was afraid and as soon as I was alone I was doomed. IOW I didn’t believe anyone could or would help or protect me. I felt I was doomed. I also didn’t tell my parents because our home was an emotional desert and they were of the Old School that you didn’t spoil kids or humor their fears. Children were to be seen and not heard. Back then my feeling (from experience) was that if they knew I was lying awake terrified in the dark night after night, they would just tell me to stop being silly. There was no comfort to be had there. And, as you say in your post, I do suffer from panic attacks and keep xanax on hand. I’m mid-60’s now and it amazes and confounds me that I still suffer from terror that took root in babyhood. Yes, I’ve had lots of therapy for the past 30+ years and have an MA in psychology myself. It’s an ongoing process. I never had children…too afraid, I guess.
I enjoy your blog. Many of your posts speak directly to me.
Thank you, Eve. My heart breaks for that young you who was terrified every night. It’s such a common experience, and the pain and terror often extend far into adulthood. Sending love.
Thank you for this important piece of education. Brought tears to my eyes as I find myself, a parent, succumbing to the mainstream message. yet time is so precious–as precious as my little girl who is growing up so insanely quick.
Thanks for reminding me that love comes in all flavors and it needs to be savored at every step.
It’s frightfully easy to succumb to the mainstream message. I’m glad my post reminded you of another way.
What a beautiful post! I’m lucky to have a child who generally sleeps 12 hours straight, but this post reminded me of myself as a child and how I went through phases of nightmares and nighttime fear, particularly right around puberty. My parents did their best, either letting me into their bed or letting me read in the middle of the night, but I still find waking up at night to be lonely and scary at times. I wonder about the connection between my anxiety as an adult and my period of nighttime anxiety as a child. I’d never thought of that before.
Yes, interesting though, Gabrielle. I would guess that there’s definitely a connection. You got lucky with your son’s sleeping!
I used to cry myself to sleep as a child and to be honest I can’t remember why. I don’t even think my parents knew. It stopped when my younger sister was born but up until the age of 5, I remember being extremely anxious to go to bed. Im not sure why though
Interesting that it stopped after your sister was born. I wonder if you were lonely and having her there filled the gap…?
Sheryl, your article brought tears to my eyes. It’s exactly what I needed to read as I’m facing this issue right now and have been seeking the solution. My 7.5 year old son is highly sensitive and is terrified of monsters and sleeps with the lights on. I have been “forcing” him to turn the light off and “not be silly, it’s only in your mind, not real”. Suddenly Doreen Virtue’s book on Indigo children (they’re so sensitive, they really DO see things from other realms) and now your article: I realize I have to accept this “weakness”, yes sorry, I am seeing now that my inner child hasn’t learnt to deal with difficult emotions and prefer to stuff them down as “weak and bad”. Deep down inside, I am fearful myself of what he’s maybe “seeing” and experiencing as I myself am highly sensitive and suffered from such great fear as a child (my parents were not aware of it), and am now a highly anxious adult (undiagnosed therefore no Xanax etc support as I refuse to even entertaint the thought that I might need any support (again, must be strong!). Thank you for this: I will now support my son emotionally the best I can (seeing that I’ve to learn how to support myself emotionally also) – and face my childhood terrors to let them ago. You have transformed the life of a child – and a parent. Much appreciated.
And your comment brought tears to my eyes, Maxime. Thank you for having the courage to post here and share some of your struggles. I’ve written a lot about my son’s fear of the dark, so if you scroll through some of the articles under the Parenthood Transitions category, you may find more support for ways to support your son.
It is so lonely parenting opposite of the mainstream and so easy (if we are peer oriented; see Gordon Neufeld’s book Hold Onto Your Kids) to let those damn mainstream messages seep in. I isolate myself pretty well from facebook, news outlets, other parents who parent according to the mainstream doctrine and when the going gets rough and my attempts to be a reliable source of unconditional love for my 3 year old daughter gets tested all of that crap pops into my head. But I really think it is self doubt and fear: Is this right to be this loving? This wasn’t what was done with me when i was raised and no one else around me practices it. And family members who don’t have kids think I’m doing something wrong because of the time I spend with my child. So thank you for this affirmation. If I wasn’t so worried what people think of me and my choices I wouldn’t need it but glad you are there as a support.
Yes, it’s right to be this loving! Trust your instincts.
Yeah you’re probably right sheryl. I lovemy sister like she is my child. I loved sleeping in her bed as a child and I still love the rare opportunities to sleep in the same bed on holidays.
It sounds like a beautiful relationship with your sister, Kat. Siblings can often be a blessing and a consistent source of love for many kids. I wrote a bit about it here:
Loved your thoughts. My son is 5 and still sleeps in my bed. I ask him if he wants his own bed, no. I’m not in a relationship so its not a big deal. My sister’s kids played bed roulette till age 9. This is easier! He told me yesterday he has dreams of monsters and vampires every night but he wasn’t afraid. I often snuck in my sister’s bed even as a teen, I would have vivid terrifying dreams of evil around me. I’m lucky my sister was relatively accomodating. I never even approached my parents for comfort…I think it ended when I was about 4. We weren’t allowed in their room and I recall laying in the hall and crying with a headache and upset tummy. They never came out to help and yelled at me in the morning for being sick in the sink not the toilet. I can STILL feel my little girl outrage – I had been so proud I got to a receptacle!
And in many cultures around the world kids sleep with their parents or with siblings for their entire childhood!
So sad that your parents turned you away and then shamed you, and yet so common, as it was even less accepted back then than it is now to keep kids in the big bed.
Hi Sheryl. I love your blog and keep coming back to see your latest thoughts. I guess my comment is just an encouragement for you. I grew up in Nigeria with my four siblings. We all had rooms but loved sleeping with our parents for the longest time. Especially because we had loud tropical rains that used to be extremely loud and scary for us.It must have started because we didn’t want to be alone at first but after that it became a time of bonding. So guess what our parents did: they got us these light mattresses that were colour coded for each person. Once night came we would drag them all to our parents room and sleep on the floor. My little sister would even squeeze herself into my parents bed if she still felt scared haha. or she’d cuddle with me. We did that even in highschool:) and when I visit them I still sleep in their room sometimes. Im so glad they let us do that and when I think of the fun times in my childhood i often think of that. The love you are showing your child and time you give to understand and be sensitive to him is not only normal but extremely beautiful:)
Thank you so much for sharing this, Ebele. It does seem that many other cultures are MUCH healthier than this one when it comes to community living and attachment parenting. Your description of the sleeping situation sounds delicious : ).
Oops 3, not 4 siblings 🙂
A storbybook was recently brought to my attention that can help children who experience any type of fear or anxiety: The Magic Rainbow Hug. This book may resonate with parents on this site because it is meant to be read aloud to the child while using nurturing touch to soothe and relax. Brain research shows that we learn best when we are using both hemispheres of the brain. A storybook like this uses the left side (language/talk) and the right side (sensory/imagination) and is a fantastic way for parents to provide nurturing and affection while also helping the child develop their own self-regulation skills. Here is the link if anyone is interested in checking it out: http://magicrainbowhug.com/
I firmly believe that taking the time is such a great investment with wonderful dividends for their adulthoods.
I get sad when I hear mainstream parenting mistakenly labeling attention and validation as coddling.
If only more of the message broadcasted was that the more we give them, the stronger and more secure they will actually be. Much less Xanax in adulthood perhaps!
Thank you, Marybeth.
This is so beautifully written. I’ve always thought it was important that my children go to sleep with a smile on their face (even on the long, hard days) and knowing they are loved.
That’s so lovely, Debra. Thank you. It reminds of what people say to engaged couples: “Never go to sleep angry at each other.” While I don’t know that that’s always possible in a marriage, I think it speaks to how vulnerable that nighttime space is and how important it is, especially for kids, to protect it.
Thank you for this. It is exactly what I needed at this moment. I am just realizing that my 8 yo girl is a highly sensitive child. She was in tears at the grocery store today because she realized that the lobsters would be cooked alive. i just held her in front of the seafood case for a little while. Fortunately, I have always tried to parent my little human gently, but it can be easy to fall prey to inner monologues. Recently, she has been wanting to sleep in my room or have me (and her baby brother) sleep in her bed every night. I found myself thinking, aren’t we done with this yet? Is it my fault for letting her sleep with me for years? Is she just doing this because I am letting her? etc. This is a beautiful reminder of my true purpose to raise a happy, healthy, peaceful and kind child and that this time is truly short (and very precious) in the grand scheme of things.
Beautiful, Julie. My little guy closes his eyes every time we pass the fish and meat departments and became a vegetarian at the age of 5 in a non-vegetarian family : ). These are truly the sensitives.
You are a wonderful support to so many, and a therapist I admire greatly. Your son certainly seems like a wonderfully compassionate and sensitive soul. I have to say, and I hope you don’t mind me saying, that from the things you have written and the way you explain things, I am surprised that you yourself are not a vegetarian like him. For me, a sensitive person, I have found cutting out meat and milk has lifted me and made me feel much lighter (not physically but on a deeper level, if that makes sense) and more at peace in a world where so much violence happens. I appreciate that everyone is different, that it’s a sensitive subject, and I’m sure it’s a choice you’ve considered and decided against for your own reasons. But I feel, in my bones, that your son might just be onto something. I hope you don’t mind me sharing my thoughts.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. For ethical reasons, I would like nothing more than to be a vegetarian, but my body needs the animal protein at this time in my life. I’ve tried several times in the past few years to cut it out and each time I’ve become quite ill. Hopefully that will change, but if not I will say my prayers of gratitude to the animals and continue to listen to the wisdom of my body.
I was always a scared child, no matter the time of day, but I vividly remember my mother laying in bed with me every night until I fell asleep. Of course, I would wake up in the middle of the night and she wasn’t there, so I’d sneak into their bed to sleep with them. Even when I was a teenager I would be scared at night, and bring my pillow and a blanket and sleep on the floor next to them! They were always kind and welcoming and never questioned me about it. Having said that, I suffer immensely from anxiety now…. but it’s safe to say it wasn’t caused by lack of sleep support as a child 🤷♀️
How beautiful that your parents nurtured you in this way. And yes there are so many causes of anxiety. Sending hugs.
When I was about ten I told my mum I was afraid of monsters and she laughed at me. She is a wonderful person (she’s actually a psychotherapist, ha) but I still remember that, and it hurt me.
We can get very hurt by even the most innocent comments or responses, and for children they go in more deeply. Thank you for sharing. How did you get through your fear of monsters at night?
If I’m being honest, I think I simply ‘grew out’ of the fear of actual, physical monsters. Another memory: one evening when I was about eleven my parents made me sit down and watch a documentary about the Holocaust. (We are Jewish and half of the family come from Germany.) I remember seeing the footage from the camps, and those images stayed with me every night for a few years. It was not an appropriate programme to be showing to a child, despite the importance of knowing about history.
This blog post brought a little bit of healing to my child-self, I think! Thank you, Sheryl. These are very wise words.
…and I am thinking of you as you continue on this journey with Everest nearing college. I can only imagine the intense many feelings you are experiencing daily. I hope you find some peace/healing in writing- so many others are certainly finding it through your words
I’m so glad to hear that this brought a bit of healing to little-you, Olivia ❤️. And thank you for your thoughts about the transition. Yes, writing always helps, as does being able to share the journey with this beautiful community. 💕
I think this has been one of my main struggles. I may have mentioned before that my grandmother set up a system where my mom had nothing to do with putting me to bed when I was around 4-5-6 because supposedly she stressed me out too much. I have a very clear and painful memory of crying really loudly because all I wanted was for my mom to sit with me until I fell asleep. To her credit, she did do that when my grandma was out of town. But I was also plagued with various monsters in my room throughout my childhood. I piled my Winnie the Pooh stuffies on top of me so that monsters couldn’t get me. Later I wouldn’t sleep on the edge of the bed because I was afraid of aliens. Then for years I was afraid of the creepy butler from the Haunted Mansion coming into my room followed by the undead pirates from Pirates of the Caribbean to slit my throat, so I slept with the covers over my neck until I was 11. I never told anyone about that fear until two years ago- cause I knew it was irrational at that point, but I could not shake the fear that it was real. I even remember one night when I was 11 saying to myself “you know, it’s not real, I think you can try leaving the covers off your neck- and then thinking “but what if tonight is the ONE night it actually happens!” From the time I was 13-21 I wasn’t that scared of being alone at night, and I think about it now that it was probably because as a teenager having crushes for the first time I would imagine whichever one it was at the time holding me at night (there were only two in case you’re wondering). The onset of intrusive thoughts rendered me unable to do that anymore, and between that, a fire, an earthquake, and my home life kind of blowing up, it’s like I’ve reverted back to being five and I’m scared of going to sleep. Last year, in an ill-advised move, I watched Marvel zombies and for months couldn’t go to sleep without The Golden Girls playing. A lot of nights in the last year I haven’t even slept in my own room. Every year since 2020 I get nervous around Halloween, because I totally believe in spirits and the idea of the veil thinning at that time of year, and even though I think most of them are friendly, the idea of seeing a ghost still scares me. This year- I didn’t even watch the movie, all I did was look it up on imdb- but I couldn’t get the idea of Michael Myers, the villain from Halloween, or someone like him out of my head. I’m 25, so sometimes I get a little frustrated with myself for having such “irrational” fears (cause zombies aren’t real, obviously), but I try to remind myself that when I’m afraid, I can’t logic myself out of it. I know the judgement comes from my grandma, cause not long before she had her stroke, I tried to explain to her that I just have these irrational fears that it’s pointless to try and argue with them, and she told me “it’s time to get rational.”
I was able to recognize a possible metaphor in these nighttime fears in therapy, though. My therapist was doing brain-spotting with me and noticed I became a little activated when the spot was by the door. I got curious about why I might have a fear spike to a doorway, and what came to mind the fact that when I was two I was sick in the hospital and would have doctors and nurses coming into my room, and often something scary would follow. But I don’t remember any of that consciously, so my brain probably turned the doctors and nurses into monsters, aliens, undead pirates, zombies, and whatever other scary thing you can conjure in your mind.
I’m still not exactly sure how to combat this, so for now I just keep a light on in my room and having the Golden Girls on whenever I need to.
Riley: That sounds really scary and painful for young-you; thank you for sharing it with us. And the metaphor makes sense: the doctors and nurses perceived as violators and later projected onto monsters and aliens. I’m so glad you’re working this through in trauma-informed therapy. I’m also curious if you’ve been able to bring comfort to little Riley through your own inner parent. You might try saying something like, “This night is not those nights. I am safe now. I’m here with you now.” The task with projections and panic is to separate the present from the past, the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. The past was dangerous and scary, but you’re safe in the present, and repeating those phrases enough times eventually helps separate the two so that you can start to feel safer.
Lights and Golden Girls are also good comfort, and I’m glad you’ve found those ways to comfort yourself. 🙏🏽
One of the few memories I have of my early childhood ,is asking my mother if I would have bad dreams each night-for
my scary nightmares were indeed a nightly occurrence-and ,being told one night (I was younger than 7) when I performed this ritual which made me feel safe,that because I had been ‘bad’ that particular day,that I would probably have bad dreams that
night. To this day, this memory haunts me, and is but one example of a very difficult mother figure.(I’ve taken your Mother wound course🙏)
I love the idea of returning to my child self and giving her what she SHOULD have been given then.
That’s a horrible, horrible thing to say to a child, and it makes sense that it still haunts you. Yes, please return to your child self and give her what she needed and deserved. 💕💕
Reading this as I hold my son’s hand as he falls asleep. Thank you Sheryl. 🤗💓
🥰🥰🥰 Give his hand a squeeze for me. ❤️❤️❤️
Thank you for this reminder that childhood anxiety and fear has a bearing o.my how we experience adulthood. I was raised by a single mother but when I was 8 her boyfriend moved in. I was disturbed by this because nobody explained what was happening or introduced us: one day he was just there, living with us. He was harsh and impatient and showed no affection. I felt severed from the connection with my mother. I began to be very fearful of going to sleet at night. Nobody stayed with me but I always asked for the door to be left open and the hall light open. I would wake up with night terrors, see grisly apparitions, and cry to myself and sometimes call to my mother. Sometimes she came and sat with me for a while but often there was no response. I remember waking and feeling paralyzed, seeing a figure before me who was leaning over and trying to strangle me. I cried for attention but sometimes my mother’s boyfriend came into my room and told me to shut up. I remember one occasion when he came into my room angrily and told me to get dressed and go downstairs and sit alone in the dark. He was enraged. I got up and ran away from him and ran downstairs. He chased me. I was crying and he caught me by the hair and shook me. My mother I assume was asleep. This is my night fear. I had nightmares about this man all through my thirties and am just beginning to understand how all this relates to my anxiety as an adult. It is helping me to understand my dreams and my profound longing to be held.
What a horribly terrifying and traumatic experience, Charlotte. It makes perfect sense that you would have nightmares about him into adulthood. I encourage you to seek trauma-release therapy, if you haven’t already, so that you can restore the safety that was stolen by him. EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and tapping can be life-changing.
Thank you, Sheryl. I have not tried those particular therapies but I will start exploring them.
“Psyche is less aware of time than we think” was a missing puzzle piece that fell into place as I read it just now. My logical brain has always resisted talking to my younger self, even as my gut and younger self have already felt the healing power of doing that. But the concept that the psyche is less aware of time than we think makes intuitive sense to me. Thank you. 💗
Also this topic is emotional for me. I had nightmares as a kid and was often terrified to fall asleep. Actually one of the most important things I’ve gotten from working with you is that death in dreams symbolizes readiness to let something in ourself die and the gift of the question, “what in me is ready to die?” When I wake up from a scary dream, it is now my default to ask myself that question. I don’t call dreams nightmares anymore – I still have frequent dreams about death, and I’ve learned I don’t need to fear them. That’s huge. And it helps me sleep much better.
When I woke up screaming as a child, my mom would lie in bed with me until I fell asleep. Sometimes I would wake up a bit later and she would be gone, and I felt betrayed. But as I read this post just now, I realized maybe the rest of the holding needed to happen by myself – even my older self now practicing holding my younger psyche. Because what I didn’t realize until just now is that her going back to bed after I’d fallen asleep role modeled another important thing that I’m currently working on personally: boundaries and prioritizing my needs (or in her case, prioritizing her own need for sleep in her bed).
Lastly, I didn’t realize until now – my parents never minimized my nightmares or fears, at least not that I remember. I felt respected and held in my feelings. I feel gratitude remembering that. 💕
These are beautiful and important reflections and insights, Jamie. Thank you so much for sharing them. 💕💕💕
🤗 Thank you so much for your response and for encouraging and holding this blog as a sacred space for reflections and connection. 💖
I feel like I was meant to read this. My daughter struggles so badly at bed time and throughout the night. It’s been so hard for me to navigate with all of the opinions. We’ve been fighting it, making her go back to her bed alone and scared. All with the intention to do what “she should be able to do”. It’s felt so wrong but I’ve been scared to sacrifice my time at night. But after reading this I know it’s something i need to do – be there for her not just during the day but nights as well.
YES, Susannah. I’m so glad this helped you reconnect with your truth.
Hi, Sheryl! I’m an old alum from your conscientious bride web course and forum – 2015! Your course helped me go through with my wedding and my husband and I have been happily married for 7 years now. Thank you!
Nighttime…oh, nighttime. I went through so many different phases. I have always been a night owl – my brain comes awake when everyone else’s is passing out. My mom is an early bird – she was so exhausted at night that she’d be in bed by 7:30 sometimes. We were old enough to put ourselves to bed, and sometimes we had to. I remember being so afraid to be the last one awake that I would try to go to bed absurdly early, but of course I’d be unable to sleep with that timer ticking down in my mind. I used to get so anxious I thought I was sick and needed to throw up. I don’t remember if I wanted to throw up so I could go tell my mom I was sick or if I just wanted the butterflies to go away. My mom, on the advice of our doctor, switched me to Lactose free milk for a time thinking perhaps lactose intolerance was the cause of my nighttime illness. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. Once I learned that M&Ms contain lactose, I assured my mother that I had no issues with milk!
Late into my teens, I used to line up stuffed animals all along the edges of my bed (I inherited the guest room so I had a queen bed all to myself!) I had an “activation protocol” that involved a series of taps, gestures, and sounds that I would repeat for each animal. I couldn’t always remember the protocol from night to night, so I’d make up a new one if I needed to. It often took 20-30 minutes. In the morning I had a “deactivation protocol” to power down the animals and thank them for their service. This one I could do in the air and at the end use a specific gesture to “broadcast” it to all the animals in the room. It saved time bc I only had to do it once. And thank goodness, bc I had a really hard time getting up in the morning, so I was always running late. If a stuffed animal fell to the floor during the night, I had to pick it up, apologize sincerely, perform a “reactivation” protocol and then kiss it to heal any hurts.
As a pre-teen, I received a clock/radio/CD player for Christmas. I discovered that sometimes during the year, local sporting events were broadcast on the radio. When the basketball or baseball teams played at night, I would listen to the broadcasts as I tried to fall asleep, comforter somewhat by the fact that somewhere downtown, thousands of people were awake. Even when the game ended, they’d all have to go out, get in their cars, and drive home in the postgame traffic. We lived in a huge city, so the commute home would have taken an hour or more for most people. It helped a little.
The times in my life I have felt the safest were those times when my parents stayed up cleaning up, talking, or doing things downstairs. The sound of my parents moving around was the sound of safety. Their murmuring was a duet of comfort. I felt so content.
My dad did not allow us to sleep in the bed with them. My mom would wake up but tell us it was all a bad dream and to try to go back to sleep. I remember one single night that my mom let me bring my pillow and blanket into their room and sleep on the floor.
To this day, I get wrapped up in activities at night and I stay up later than everyone else (everyone else being just my husband now). I wonder if distractions (TV, reading, games, crafting) aren’t ways to allow my brain to hum along with all its nighttime energy but not feel so alone.
P.S. I LOVED CAMPING! The entire 6-person family packed like sardines into a family-sized tent. The chill in the air and the dew in the morning, the sounds of birds waking up and starting to chirp as I snuggled with my entire family. Those were nighttimes I looked forward to!
Hello! So nice to seen your screenname 😊. This is so beautiful to read and receive, and is such a common experience for young, HSPs in childhood: needing others to be awake, not alone in the night, packed in like sardines in the tent! HSPs are often the “puppy pile” temperament and tend to be much more activated by aloneness than a more typically wired person, so of course this gets activated at night.
It always amazes me how children find rituals to help bring some comfort, as you did with your stuffed animals. My sense is that there are time-honored traditions and rituals that could help us manage our fear of night, which must be as old as humanity, but sadly we’ve lost touch with many of those so we’re left to create our own, which sometimes help but sometimes don’t. Sending big hugs!
I only just saw that you responded to my comment. Thank you, Sheryl! I need to log in to the forum and give an update on my relationship. I know I so appreciated those “lifelines” from former course members, as we used to call them.
Hey Sheryl, thank you for sharing. When I was a little girl I struggle with night fears very frequently, and my father did not allowed me to go to my parents bed, my mum regrets not having allowed me… I an mum now that is always taking care of anxiety on more or less degree. I am now trying to decide if it time to take our baby crib out of our bedroom or not. She falls sleep on my breast every night and sleeps on her crib happily. My partner miss having our space. It is not an easy decision but it is so good to be aware of the social pressures to make a Ioving decidion for my family and our lovely little girl and her future.
Thank you for sharing this, MMR. It is challenging to listen closely to what is needed and each family needs to determine that for themselves as it’s different for everyone. Sending hugs.
This is a beautiful post and couldn’t come at a better time, as my 3 year old had a nightmare the past two nights – it was only my husband who was able to calm her down with deep breathing that she was able to get back to sleep. She told us in the morning she was afraid of monsters. I cosleep with her, always have since the start, and I don’t know why but I think it’s important for her temperament. When we do get to the place where she can sleep alone, she will always be free to come sleep in our bedroom too as needed. I know a lot of people without highly sensitive kids who have no problem sleeping alone, so it’s nice to have this support as there isn’t much out there.
Oh Sheryl, your posts are forever so timely…so connected to the greater field of life and spirit and all that wants to birth itself through us humans. 🥰
I’ve been praying for healing around my nighttime anxiety, trauma and nighttime binge eating recently. I read your post and sobbed with recognition, grief and then hope.
I may have been left alone in the night as a young child during my mother’s active alcoholism—alone and terrified she may never wake up. I may have learned to cope with years of that hopeless situation by soothing my huge, confusing, unacknowledged and unexplained-to-me feelings with food and TV. I may have been terrified to go to sleep because something worse might happen if I did and coaxed my tired body with food back to strength to stay awake and vigilant. And all of that may have been stored in the strata of my body……but…but…and…
“Psyche is less aware of time than we think, and when we’re able to meet these tender, scared, and lonely places with our current loving, compassionate and grounded adult self, true healing occurs.”
Through the growth and healing I’ve experienced in and since your Trust Yourself and Healing the Mother Wound courses in the last 2 years, I know I am ready to be that adult presence I needed 40 years ago. To give myself what my mother could not. Without resentment, hostility, judgment shame or condition. With willingness. With steadfastness. With excitement. With anticipation. In preparation for my own high flying.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. 🙏
So very beautiful, Donna! See you in the skies :). ❤️
This post resonates. I’ve spent decades willingly unpacking my interior world through therapy, Al-Anon 12-Step recovery, and the wisdom, vulnerability, and honesty of people like you, Sheryl. I’ve got a good life today. And I’m better able to honor the messiness of it rather than pathologize my human feelings. Took a long time. Of course, there is still fear. Normal. I can trace everything back to a nighttime event when I was 10 (I’m nearly 54 now). My mother was already unhappy in her new marriage to my step father, with whom this highly sensitive gay kid was absolutely not bonding. To me, this new man in her life was just a massive disruption — a barrier between she and I and a threat to my emotional security. And they simply had no tools back then to figure out how to make blended families work, so they retreated into their own unconscious adaptive ways of coping with their world. I now have compassion for that. I spent the night at my friend Danny’s house. We watched a scary movie, and boom! Anxiety. First conscious memory of it. Lied to Danny that I was sick. Called my step father to pick me up. Lied to him about why. Spent that night terrified in my own bed, with images of the movie playing and re-playing in my little mind. And I spoke about it with nobody. Years later, I would discover how that night created the pathway for what I would eventually recognize as shame: Something must be wrong with me. When I would have subsequent periods of sleep disruption, I would panic. These days, I’m a naturally good sleeper with healthy sleeping habits. And a very real part of me loves the quiet hours before bed — I’m a ritual guy. But during periods of stress and transition, my sleep can get disrupted. Again, normal. However, that 10-year old can also get activated. He’s not entirely gone, which is okay. I’ve learned to see him and feel him — literally, in a somatic way. I know where he lives in my body. I know what he looks like and sounds like. I don’t make him wrong or bad. I just sit with him the way you sat with Asher, Sheryl. Thank you for sharing some of the personal details of your life. For me, it makes your work so powerful. Forever grateful. – Mike D.