Your daughter is freaking out, afraid of something (irrationally, but still), and unable to stay in her room, coming out to stand crying, over and over.
a) Upset that she’s so unhappy, wishing so hard you could make it better for her.
b) Angry that her fear is irrational and inconvenient.
You respond by:
a) Talking and praying, discussing strategies, climbing in bed with her. (Are you calm, or are you intense? If you can’t sleep, do you try to slip out, or do you feel obligated to wake her so she won’t feel betrayed when she wakes to find you gone?)
b) Ordering her to stop crying and stop coming out of her room and go to sleep. (Do you use an angry voice… or can you do this calmly… if she ‘disobeys,’ will you escalate to yelling or roughness, or calmly and unconcernedly escort her back?)
Whatever YOU feel, is YOUR issue. You need a way to deal with it other than by taking it out on her.
As for how to respond to the child:
I think it’s important to take a child’s fear seriously even when you know it’s irrational. It’s highly unlikely that a little one would pretend to be afraid. She might be working through some deeper subconscious fear that has nothing to do with the surface trigger she’s talking about. Or, sometimes I wonder if a child needs to sort of practice with intense emotions. Anyway, if you think your child is “just doing it to get attention,” perhaps you might consider that she might NEED attention, and is seeking it the only way she can figure out at the moment.
It’s possible to step over a boundary when taking your child’s fear seriously — to let it become important and upsetting and intense to you as well as to her. It’s HER fear, not yours. Somehow one must be able to express compassion and respect while allowing the fear to belong solely to the child. I’m not talking about becoming afraid of the same thing that’s frightening the little one, of course, but about being just as upset about the fear as the child is. If you’re just as upset as she is, it seems likely that the fear will feel even more dangerous and powerful than she initially thought.
That’s what was going on with me the other night. I was doing the same thing Amy was, getting myself all worked up about the situation, bringing into it my concerns about parenting well, not able to disengage (taking the issue on as if it was mine) and accept the unpleasant reality (that even though I needed to sleep and felt very tired, I was not yet asleep, and likewise for her).
Of course it’s also possible to come across as dismissive, shaming, invalidating, and otherwise NOT compassionate and respectful. Just because you know the fear belongs to the child, and just because you know how irrational it is, doesn’t mean you can expect the child to be able to toss the fear aside and be done with it. Again, the fear is real even if the trigger doesn’t merit such fear.
I expect it is possible to be both gentle and firm… perhaps it is possible to express compassion and respect for the fear without taking it on as your own issue, and without making exceptions to the normal bedtime routine. If you’re able to sleep in the child’s bed, or invite her into your own, or think of some other help (we tried a white noise generator, for example), well and good. But if you’re not able to do those things, then I suppose it’s okay not to. You know the kid is safe. You know they will emerge alive in the morning. You know they know you are there in the house and that you love them and respect their fear. You’re letting them cry — the dreaded Cry It Out, some will charge — but the overall environment is compassion and respect, not abandonment and disconnection.