It was around 2 a.m. when my 7-year-old son, Tristan, crawled into bed with me. He was shaking, like he often does in the night. This happens about once every other week, and when I asked him what was scary he said, “A dream. It’s too scary to tell you.” He snuggled up close to me, and I put my arm around him. I hate having him in bed with me. It’s not that I don’t love him, I do. I love the hell out of the kid; it’s just that I can’t sleep with his little butt crammed into my stomach, or his face a few inches from mine, breathing into my mouth.
The problem is I’m not a good sleeper. I have night anxiety. I always have. I can’t recall when it developed. It seems to have been a part of me as long as I’ve been sleeping. I had night terrors for a long time, well into my teens. I think the worst part of it all is that I felt powerless. As a child, I think what I hated most was feeling powerless. These fears got more aggravated when my father left. He was a drug addict who cheated on my mother and died from his addictions 10 years after he left my family. The stress of my parent’s breakup made my life all the crazier, and it always came to a head in the night, when I was alone, and trying to sleep. In fact, I still wake up in the night with cold sweat, and pain in my gut, and fearful of things I can’t put my finger on. I’m 32, and frankly, I hate it.
When I think about my own terror, and trouble sleeping, combined with my son’s nightmares, I wonder if I’ve passed all this down to my son. I wonder if it is genetic. I can say with confidence that I have no intentions of following in my father’s footsteps of drug addiction and divorce, so I doubt he’ll have that to worry about, but other than my own actions, I don’t really know how to help my son.
I was reading an article in Fast Company by Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D. who said, “A child’s bedtime anxiety can lead to a lifetime of insomnia.” Segran went on to give an alarming statistic, “Psychologists believe that 50% of children between the ages of 2 and 7 are afraid of the dark. And if left untreated, that fear can continue on into adulthood: Among grown-ups, 8% of women and 3% of men are scared of the dark, which often leads to insomnia.”
I know this all sounds crazy to those who don’t have night anxiety (I’ve had a heck of a time explain it to my wife, a woman who sleeps like a rock) but I can’t help but see the above statistic in my own life. Even now, and particularly as a child, I felt the most helpless at night, in the dark, and alone. For me, there were times as a child that I would become anxious in the day because I was so fearful for the night to approach.
I don’t want that for my son, or any of my children (I have three).
Perhaps I am over reacting. Perhaps I am projecting my own pain onto my children, but honestly, it’s difficult not to do that as a parent.
Tristan and I usually talk about his fears the next morning, but he is always resistant. He looks at me with big blue eyes that are a little wet with fear, and then tells me he either can’t remember the nightmare, or it was just too scary to talk about. I try to tell him that he has nothing to worry about. I tell him that I am there. “I’ve got you, buddy. I’m here and mom’s here.” But nothing I say seem to say makes a difference, and I know, a few days after we chat he will, soon enough, be in my bed, shaking, and snuggling, and kicking me in the stomach. Honestly, I’m not sure what to do about my son’s nightmares.
A few weeks ago Charlotte Cramer who cofounded Glow Away, a product that is in the process of being crowd funded on kickstarter, reached out to me about helping to promote their product. I don’t usually promote products on my blog, but this one seems like something I’d like to use with my children, so I’d like to see it come into production.
Glow Away uses a child’s imagination to help them gain control of their nighttime fears. Charlotte states that, "Rationalizing with children between the ages of 2 and 7 does not work. Telling them that their fears are not real is not helpful, because, to that child, those fears are everything." Glow Away’s solution is a book about a little magical fellow called Boo who can cast a spell that gets rid of monsters that hide in the dark. There is also a blanket in the kit that lights up with that spell when the room is dark. It’s a simple idea, but considering what I’ve been through with myself, and with my son, I think it might work. Children’s fears of the dark are based on their imagination. The idea is to use their imagination, rather than their reason, to tackle those fears. It gives them the power to fight their own fears.
And honestly, what could be more powerful than a child’s imagination?
After about an hour of Tristan’s body heat next to me, and him kicking me more than once, I got up and carried him, sleeping, back into his bed. I got him covered with a blanket. Then I looked at him for a bit, and wondered what he was dreaming about. I hoped that it was something better, more pleasurable, than his earlier dream. After a few moments, I went back to my bed and struggled to fall back asleep.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.