Child Panic Attacks and Sleeping Arrangements

Reader’s Question

A dear friend of mine is divorced and has a ten-year-old daughter. It was a nasty divorce and the parents are still very hostile to each other. The daughter alternates weeks with each parent, and she has her own room in each home. During the past year she has begun having panic attacks, and she is seeing a counselor weekly to learn how to handle them and how to deal with anxiety. Meanwhile, the parents seem to think that it is okay for the daughter to sleep with the parent with whom she is living that week — male or female! — to soothe her panic attacks. The father plans to remarry in a few months, at which time the daughter will of course be relegated to her own bedroom. I have told my friend, however, that the child needs to stop sleeping in her father’s bed immediately, that it is inappropriate in every way, and that if anyone finds out about this social services could be called to investigate an unhealthy situation.

Believe it or not, these are extremely protective, vigilant, well-educated parents who watch out for the child’s safety and well-being in every other way. It’s as if they somehow missed the memo on this issue though — they just don’t see how inappropriate it is! There is no suspicion of abuse by the father — I think it is more a case of his taking the path of least resistance because allowing the child to sleep with him stops the immediate problem of the hysterical panic attack. The child’s mother encourages the father to let the child sleep with him to prevent the panic attacks. She is more worried about the panic attacks than she is about the bizarre sleeping arrangements! She pooh-poohs my concerns, which include the child’s emotional and psychological welfare, both short-term and long-term, as well as the appearance of incest if anyone finds out a 10-year-old girl sleeps with her father regularly. The mother thinks that because there is no touching going on, there is no reason the child shouldn’t sleep with her dad. Isn’t this a terribly unhealthy situation as well as a potentially dangerous one? Am I correct in telling her that the child needs to be sent to her own bed immediately rather than waiting for the upcoming wedding? Any suggestions for how to gracefully move her from her father’s bed to her own, now that the precedent is well established? Shouldn’t a ten-year-old be sleeping in her own bed at both parents’ houses? Or am I way off base on all of this? Please help! G.S.

Psychologist’s Reply

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G.S. — You know you’re not off-base here. In fact, it sounds like you have a very good understanding of the situation. The parents are taking the path of least resistance without stopping to think about what is causing the panic attacks in the child.

Most likely, the daughter is experiencing panic attacks for several reasons including:

  1. The parents are still hostile toward one another. The child can sense this and it creates a high level of anxiety and eventually panic for her. The child’s normal feelings of insecurity are now amplified by the continuing resentment and hostility in the parents.
  2. The surfacing of panic attacks has created an unexpected situation for the child — wow…Mom and Dad are talking together about something related to her for once. In divorce, children who become ill often find their illness bringing divorced Mom and Dad together in a calm and helpful manner — both now focusing on the child rather than the divorce hostilities. As we might expect, the child then become invested in staying ill.
  3. The child is also anxiously anticipating the remarriage of the Father. Here comes the “psychological theory” part. A panic disorder that allows the child to sleep with the father also blocks anyone else from sleeping with Dad. Same is true with Mom. Some ex-spouses support parent-child sleeping arrangements for this reason. If the child is threatened by the Dad’s girlfriend, moving her out of Dad’s bed will only produce more intense panic attacks. All children have reconciliation fantasies and she may feel she is actually defending Mom’s place in the home. Keep in mind that she may actually like Dad’s girlfriend yet have these mixed feelings.
  4. School-age children shouldn’t be sleeping with their parents unless they are ill, a storm scares everyone in the house, or it’s a rare-event family slumber party.
  5. If the parents want to treat the panic attacks, they need to treat the panic — not the sleeping arrangements. The child’s panic and anxiety will decrease if they avoid hostilities in the presence of the child, avoid nasty comments about each other, be at least Wal-Mart civil when together, discuss the future with the child (most parents forget to do this), and assure the child that a new stepmother of stepfather will not decrease their love. Children at her age talk well, but they have no adult experience. She may have horrible fantasies about what will happen if Dad remarries for example. Anxious folks think catastropically and she will have many fears she can’t verbally express.

Return the child to her own room and bed. Don’t return her with a focus on “stepmom is coming” but rather “It’s summer and you may want to have a sleepover”. Use the same goodnight ritual at each home — nightclothes, teeth, kiss goodnight, etc. That makes the child feel comfortable at both locations. Use nightlights (motion-detecting ones work great — child raises her hand and the light pops on) and other things to make her feel safe. There are additional tips on the internet for returning children to bed.

As you are aware, divorce and custody situations produce difficult times for everyone. This is a situation where using the path of least resistance — doing what is easiest to fix something — will make correcting it very difficult in the future.

PS: She’s lucky to have a friend like you. In the midst of intense emotional issues, folks often need a voice of logic as a good friend.

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