Parenting Dilemmas: Bedtime

Scared to Go to Sleep

Tracy, a concerned mom of a 5-year-old, says:


"[Our son] is afraid to sleep alone. He wants to sleep in our bedroom and will only stay in his bed if we sleep with him. He says he's scared of the dark and of monsters. He's told us he sees red eyes looking though the window.


"We've stopped letting him watch certain movies like, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and cartoons like Scooby Doo, but he still screams bloody murder when we try to put him to bed in his room. There have been times where we've been so frustrated that we've yelled at him and called him Scaredy-Cat. Neither one of us has had a good night's rest in weeks, and we don't know what to do anymore. It's driving us nuts. Please help us."


Sitting down with Tracy and Roger, Dr. Phil goes over the techniques the couple has tried in an effort to help their son. "You've tried putting him back in his bed, sleeping with him, telling him there aren't any monsters, leaving the light on. You've had a doctor tell you, ‘Let him scream it out,'" he recounts.


The couple nods in agreement.

Dr. Dan Siegel, a member of the Dr. Phil Advisory Board who does extensive work in psychotherapy with children and the author of Parenting from the

Inside Out, joins the discussion. "From your point of view, what do you say needs to happen here?" Dr. Phil asks him.

"Sometimes, when a child is having fears, you have to look at what can go on in his life," Dr. Siegel says. For example, when Tracy and Roger stopped letting their son watch movies with monsters, his sleeping improved for a short period of time. "What we look for is to see how, actually in ourselves as parents, you can stay with a child when he's experiencing this uncomfortable feeling of fear." He asks the parents what happens when their son becomes frightened while in their company?

"We have told him, reassured him, that there are no such things as monsters, and he'll say, ‘Well, there are monsters on TV,' and we'll tell him it's not real," Roger says.

"You've gotten frustrated with him and said, ‘You're just being a Scaredy-Cat,'" Dr. Phil adds.


"Staying with a child and not denying their feelings is very important," Dr. Siegel says. He suggests they try a new technique with their son. "You say, ‘I see you're scared. Tell me more about it,' and if he can learn over time " this may take a few weeks " that whatever he's feeling he sees in your eyes it's going to be OK, soon in his own internal world he's going to learn that he can feel anything and learn how to soothe himself, so if he does wake up in the middle of the night, he'll be able to soothe himself and go back to sleep."

"The idea is you are going to have to stay with him some in the middle of the night for a while, but it's not just to say, ‘It's OK,' but instead get him with whatever vocabulary and whatever child-appropriate expressives that he has, to tell you, ‘Here's what I'm feeling,'" Dr. Phil clarifies. "Get him to talk about the fear."


Dr. Siegel points out that the parents must also look inside themselves to see what fear means to them, so that they can truly help their child. "That gives you the strength and the peace of mind to actually stay there with your child instead of denying it … because there's
nothing inside of you that you're also trying to escape from."

The couple agrees to try Dr. Siegel's technique.