Nighttime is When the Shadows are Unleashed

Image 18“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.

31 comments to Nighttime is When the Shadows are Unleashed

  • 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.

  • Elena Williams

    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.

  • Kate

    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!

  • Eve

    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.


  • Gabrielle

    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.

  • Kat

    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

  • Maxime

    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.

  • sahmpaw

    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.

  • Kat

    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.

  • nina

    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 🙂

  • Andrea R.

    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:

  • Marybeth

    Hi Sheryl-
    Beautifully written:)
    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!

  • Debra

    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.

  • Julie

    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.

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