I’m 18 and Still Sleep with My Mom

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Reader’s Question

I’m 18 years old and I have never slept in a bedroom by myself. I’m terrified to death of the dark and even if I could make peace with the dark, I couldn’t bear to sleep by myself.

I will turn 19 soon and it has taken me a long time to admit that I have a problem. I’m in tears writing this because I feel desperate and hopeless and, most of all, ashamed — I’m an adult and I sleep with my mom.

I used to share a room with my sister, then we got our own rooms and I started sleeping on the floor of my parents’ bedroom. Years passed and I started getting scared of sleeping on the floor. My father sleeps in the living room now and I sleep with my mom.

I do not know anyone who is experiencing this problem. I know it is strange, unusual, immature and abnormal. Please don’t judge me. I need help. What do I do? How will I ever live by myself? I can’t seem to find any answers. I stay up till 3 or 4 am watching TV, talking to people, listening, trying to fall asleep — nothing works. I keep imagining things and I freak out. Even if I’m not scared of anything in particular, I start sweating and sleep flies out the window. Next day I’m exhausted at work and school. I have a beautiful little night light and even that scares me in the middle of the night.

I’m in college and I will go to medical school soon. I really need help with this problem. Should I take sleeping pills? Aren’t they dangerous? How do I fix this problem?

Psychologist’s Reply

First, let me say that you are not the first adult to ever have such a problem.

According to an article published by the National Sleep Foundation about insomnia (difficulties falling asleep), around 30-40% of adults say they have some symptoms of insomnia within a given year, and about 10-15% of adults say they have chronic insomnia. The most common reason for adults to have insomnia is anxiety: worries that ‘rev up’ their minds, and keep sleep away.

You are describing two interwoven problems, both of which can be solved with some help, effort, and cooperation of your family. The first problem is anxiety — those general worries that are revving up your mind when it’s time for sleep. The other problem is the way in which your sleep has been conditioned. You have always slept with another person in the room, and this has become a requirement for you to fall asleep.

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Most children, and many adults too, have sleep transition objects and/or conditions that must be in place for falling and staying asleep. For young children, think of special stuffed animals, blankets, or pacifiers. Many children maintain use of these objects into adolescence or adulthood — you may even have some friends who still sleep with a special pillow or stuffed animal, and they will be taking them away to school with them. Other children have ‘objects’ that are not as practical as they get older, such as a bottle, or even mom or dad.

Environmental and behavioral cues for sleep are also important. Think of the young child who not only must have mom nearby to fall asleep, but also requires her back to be rubbed. Soon, that child will not be able to fall asleep without having her back rubbed. Changing these patterns can be very challenging both for children and for adults.

Good ‘sleep hygiene’ is also important for maintaining a positive sleep schedule. Good sleep practices include having a set bedtime every night; using bed only for sleep (and sex, for adults) and not for reading, watching TV or other activities; and getting out of bed if one is lying awake for more than 20 minutes.

While you may not know of anyone else who is experiencing your problem, it is not that uncommon for families with school-aged or adolescent children to come into treatment because a child cannot fall asleep on his or her own. In your situation, your family has also unwittingly contributed to keeping your problem going. At the point when you got your own room, rather than getting treatment for you, your parents allowed you to sleep in their room, which kept your problem going. Using this as an example, I will describe what could be expected from behavioral treatment for a sleep problem like yours. Instead of having you sleep in mom and dad’s room, you would have been encouraged to sleep in your own bed, but with mom or dad nearby (on the floor, perhaps). Each night, mom or dad would move progressively further away from your bed, until they were in the hallway, and so on. This process is not fast — it could take several weeks.

Looking to your situation now, you will require the help of a psychologist or behavior analyst with experience in this area. Comprehensive behavioral treatment is recommended for addressing your sleep problems. Some version of the above will most likely be recommended, except you will be the one moving progressively away from your parents’ bed. Your father will also need to take back his place in the marital bed. At the same time, it is not a bad idea for you to have a ‘sleep object’ — one you can take with you wherever you go (such as a special pillow). You should refrain from associating other things with bedtime, such as TV.

As for medication, it may be useful to have an evaluation for the anxiety problems that seem to be contributing to your sleep difficulties. The use of medication for sleep (“hypnotics”) should be considered only after a proper evaluation and after a behavioral treatment plan has been put in place. Hypnotics can result in trading your sleep dependency on another human being, for dependency on a pill. An article published by the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, at the National Institutes of Health, recommends the use of sleep medication only for short-term use with acute insomnia, or for the long-term treatment of specific sleep disorders.

You did not say if you have difficulty staying asleep once you fall asleep. The normal sleep cycle includes several ‘awakenings’ during the night. We don’t come to full consciousness, but we are in a state close to waking. If the conditions match those in which we initially fell asleep, we go right back to sleep and never notice. If the conditions are different, we may become more fully awake and experience the ‘falling asleep’ problem again (think of the parent who goes to the child in the middle of the night to pop the pacifier back in, or rub the child’s back). It is therefore important that the environment and sleep cues be consistent throughout the sleep period. So it’s not a good idea to fall asleep to TV or music — unless you plan to have those things on all night, every night.

There is certainly hope for you. Together with your family and outside help, you might solve this problem within a few months.

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