Janice G. Tracht, MSW
I have some pretty good reasons why I think that it is in a child’s best interest to limit access to the parental bed to an occasional invited snuggle. There are separate, more compelling reasons for these limitations when parents become divorced.
A healthy family (whether single-parent, blended or in tact) has healthy boundaries. There is a separation between the generations that functions to maintain a balance of power and appropriate intimacy. These boundaries do not exist to restrict the flow of love between members, but rather allow parents to share and benefit from mature adult intimacy, while fostering a loving and nurturing flow of parental affection to the children. When these boundaries are blurred or crossed, the marital relationship suffers. Often times when a couple does not meet each other’s emotional needs, they seek the fulfillment of these needs by becoming excessively attentive and emotionally involved with their children. The marriage suffers because the kind of love a child reflects back to a parent cannot be a substitute for the mature love and intimacy of an adult relationship. The children suffer by being placed in a position of providing emotional gratification to an adult. They are far too emotionally immature to manage this and pay for this burden placed upon them by having to constantly “read” their parent’s state of neediness and sacrifice their own developmental needs to do this adult job. They may also be elevated into a position of too much power in the family by becoming demanding that this high level of attention and gratification is constantly sustained. In a healthy family, children learn over time to respect the bonds of intimacy that can only be shared by a husband and wife. When this occurs they are able to develop age appropriate and diversified ways of gaining affection and validation. The child also acquires the ability to self-soothe, and this skill can only develop when parents are artful about when to move in and give comfort and when to allow their child needed space.
So how does the parental bed become a “hotbed” of trouble when children are allowed to sleep through the night with their parents? Privacy, and the very important things it provides for a couple, are sacrificed. One of those important “things” privacy provides for is sex. Yeah, sex—that rather essential feature of a rich and full marriage. What happens to that fundamental means of sharing emotional closeness in a marriage when the child’s demands for comfort in the marital bed supersedes the need for the parents’ privacy?
The issue of having a child sleep with a parent through the night becomes even more complex in the case of a divorce. Children, especially pre-schoolers and early elementary aged children, are very shaken by a divorce and may become edgy and exhibit somatic complaints. They have lost the presence of one of their parents in their home and they may have great anxiety about losing the other parent, too. They are subject to bad dreams and need a lot of reassurance that things are going to turn out all right. When a parent allows this child to sleep through the night with them, they may believe they are solving the problem by offering a comforting presence. In the long run, the child may pay by becoming overly dependent on the parent and have greater difficulty in adjusting to any kind of change.
When her husband leaves, a wife may feel lonely, abandoned, and frightened at being alone. The bed can seem like a pretty empty and cold place to be each night. A husband may feel “banished” from his own home to a small apartment, wondering how much greater loss he will incur because of the divorce. A divorcing mother or father can directly or unintentionally seek to assuage these feelings by having their child sleep with them. It becomes a great comfort to the parent: Someone is there, someone so loved, someone no one or no thing can take away, and they are solaced by the small, warm presence of their child peacefully sleeping next to him/her. The child, in this situation, is placed in a position of taking care of an adult’s emotional needs. This may intensify and complicate the common concern children may have in a divorce about the other parent being lonely when they are not with them. When a child sleeps with the opposite sex parent he/she is placed in a role that belongs to an adult and that can be burdensome and confusing to that child’s developing sexual identity. In addition, during sleep, the normal adult male will have an erection approximately every 90 minutes. While there may be no intention to sexualize his daughter, this may occur if she becomes aware of her father’s erection while he sleeps.
Eventually the time may come when a divorced parent finds another adult to share his/her bed. How does one dislodge a son or daughter when this happens, without making them feel displaced, unwanted and jealous? Another dilemma has been created making the challenge to adjust to a new person in their lives, all the more difficult for everyone.
So what do you do when your child comes to you in the middle of the night, or refuses to go to bed in his/her own room? Of course, your youngster is seeking warmth and reassurance, and needs it at that moment. I suggest getting up and going with the child back into his room. Tuck your child in, talk softly and offer words of comfort. Read a favorite story and retrieve a favorite, cuddly stuffed toy to hold. You can lie on the bed next to your child, offering the comfort of your physical closeness and nurturing touch. Encourage your child to think positively and about things he/she can do and think of that will lead to the child feeling empowered. You can promise that you will stay until your child falls back to sleep and when this happens, return to your own bed. Repeat this routine as needed. Your child will learn that her room is her own special and safe place in both households. She’ll develop a sense that she can take care of herself and that she is growing up strong.
And when the morning comes and you hear the pat-a-pat of little feet running to greet you, by all means, open up your arms and snuggle right up to that precious little one of yours. He made it through the night all by himself—and so did you!
Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance. He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”