When my daughter, Amy, was a preteen, she became anxious about going to sleep because of fears of dying in the middle of the night. So I would remain in her bedroom, explaining and reassuring her until she gave the “all clear.” Sometimes, however, my sleep therapy wouldn’t stick, in which case she’d wake me up in the wee hours of the morning to tell me that her anxiety was preventing her from sleeping.
I came to realize that the four to six hours a week I spent trying to talk her out of her sleep phobia wasn’t working. In fact, her fears seemed to be worsening. I figured out that her condition was worsening not because I had yet to figure out the magic words that would restore her mental health but because I was talking at all. My talk-talk-talking effectively validated her fears. Why, pray tell, would I be talking at all if her fears didn’t deserve a lot of serious attention?
So, I stopped talking. The next time Amy told me she was afraid of going to sleep, I said, “Yeah, I know. That sort of fear isn’t unusual at your age. I’ve said all I have to say. You’re going to have to either learn to live with it or put an end to it. So, my princess, I love you (kiss, kiss). See you in the morning!”
Amy wasn’t happy with that turn of events. She continued trying to engage me in her fears for a week or so. She would begin bawling as I left her room, for example. She may have even yelled, “You’ll be sorry if I’m dead in the morning!” Children are, after all, soap opera factories. I, however, stayed the course.
After several weeks, I noticed that Amy’s demons seemed to have released their grip on her. When I tucked her in, she made no attempt to get me to hang around, talking in vain. I realized that the very thing no psychologist in good standing would recommend had been key to Amy’s recovery. So I began recommending my “no-talking cure” for childhood fears to other parents. They had, I would point out, said everything there was to say about the fears in question. They were repeating themselves as if their children were dense. They were on a constant search for magic words that don’t exist. Furthermore, their talk-talk-talking was verifying that the child’s fears were serious, deserving therefore of much parental consternation and, therefore, ever more talk-talk-talking. And around and around they went until they stopped talking.
Every time I’ve recommended my peculiar cure for obsessive fears of all sorts, it’s worked. This success is one reason of many why I do not believe—with rare exception—that young children should be allowed to engage in one-on-one (as in, private) conversations with therapists. In the case of irrational anxieties/fears, said conversations are likely to lend significance to something that’s nothing more than a product of a child’s rather overactive and random imagination. Contrary to the standard (and unproven) psychological narrative, the fears in question do not represent “issues” in a child’s life that said child can’t safely express or lacks the words to express. They are literally meaningless. Therefore, the less attention they are given, the better.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at email@example.com or (817) 295-1751.