My daughter is 10 1/2 and since the pandemic started, she’s super clingy. She lets me go to work—no problems there. She has a good daily routine. But at night she doesn’t want me to leave. So I’ve been sleeping with her. It’s all good, my husband says I snore anyways. But I don’t think it’s healthy for her. And she is always asking me if I’m okay and she tells me she loves me about 20 times too much a day. I may be exaggerating but she does say it a bit more than she should. What can I do?
Dear No Me-Time,
It really sounds like your daughter is experiencing what everyone right now is going through: profound fear and a loss of safety. Nobody knows what’s happening and everything feels chaotic. That’s real. In the face of so much unknown, people are seeking comfort in any way they can, often by overdoing it on the things they know they can count on—food, alcohol, Netflix. In your daughter’s case, her fears and anxieties are being soothed by proximity to you and by your constant reassurance that you’re ok, that everything’s ok, that if she tells you how much she loves you, you won’t contract Covid and die. You wrote that when she has structure and can occupy herself in the daytime, she’s fine. But upon the beginning of darkness, of the obscure, she can’t bear to be away from you.
For probably several reasons, her anxiety is heightening at this time of day. Maybe the news is on and the news sucks right now. Maybe she is afraid of the dark but not saying so—a fear of the dark isn’t even really about the dark. It is often a sign that a child feels unsafe. Maybe there are enough people for her to interact with during the day that she doesn’t have the time to be by herself with her worries, but she feels more alone at night. Perhaps she actually feels deprived of attention during the day and needs it to be made up once you’re available again. And for the sake of not making everything about Covid, maybe there have been other tensions in the home that she’s picking up on that contribute to her unease.
Whatever the case, we should also give you some space to look at how you’ve been feeling and what emotions you’re grappling with. Kids are very efficient detectors of parental preoccupation, and if you’ve had worries on your mind, your daughter can probably tell and wants to know that things are ok with you.
Because she is ten and a half, I think she is old enough to handle an honest conversation about what’s going on and what her fears are, and more than that, she would benefit from it. Whatever is going through her mind is going to be a lot scarier to her as long as it keeps living in her mind. And that goes for you too if you’ve been struggling with any anxiety that she’s noticing. If you can bring it into the light, you can both look at it and decide what’s real and what’s silly enough to laugh at together. Ask her lots of questions about what she’s imagining and what scares her and what she thinks might happen if you left her alone at night. Resist the urge to reassure her with empty “it’ll be okay”s and “nothing is going to happen to mommy”s. Instead, really try to understand with compassion, and maybe even offer your own genuine thoughts, maybe about how impressed you are that she’s been so brave and flexible during the day at a time when everything feels so weird, and that it’s ok for her to be feeling this way—everyone is, but we’re all in it together and no one is going to leave her to fend for herself. You’ll be encouraging her to engage with her feelings and that nothing she feels is too scary to talk about.
Based on this conversation, the two of you can come up with a plan (a.k.a. boundaries). We already know she can adhere to a plan and respect boundaries because she’s not bothering you while you’re at work. So this new plan might entail a good bedtime ritual that she looks forward to where she feels tucked in and maybe reads a fun book on her own until she’s ready to go to sleep. If she’s feeling scared or uneasy, maybe there’s a code word she can say so that you know what it’s about and that code word gets her a little extra mom time. Whatever it is, it’ll be based on the discussion you already had, so you can always refer back to it when you hit a wall or if things start to regress. Remember when we talked about…did that make you feel better? Are you thinking those scary thoughts you told me about? The plan is something you both can figure out with each other and agree on. Coming up with an agreement provides that sense of surety and safety she might be missing, something she can count on that serves as her nighttime structure.
Now, the next item might be to deal with what you think about your husband’s feelings about your snoring…. (also, a wedge pillow could be helpful)
Sending love to you and your family,