My son can’t sleep after seeing a scary picture

My eight-year-old son was shown a character from an over-18s movie by his friends

Q. Five weeks ago in school, my eight-year-old son was introduced to a character from an over-18s movie by two of his peers. Later, he googled pictures of the character. He has not slept properly since and we are very worried about him and the lack of progress in overcoming this. He used to sleep through the night. The pictures he saw are very scary. He knows he was wrong to search for them online and wishes he hadn't seen them.

At night now he will go to sleep in his bed on the promise that we check on him in five minutes – which we do and he is asleep. He will wake up continuously through the night and want to sleep in our bed or for us to sleep with him which we do on occasion out of desperation. We are unsure whether this is the right thing or should we be getting him some professional help? Is this a normal reaction or is it more serious?

We have spoken to him about real and pretend and he understands but in the middle of the night he worries this character is coming to get him and I can hear him checking behind his door and in the wardrobe. We are feeling very upset about this as we are very careful parents as to what he watches at home – he has no internet access without our supervision. We would be so grateful for any advice you could give.

A. Some children are badly affected by watching horror movies or seeing scary images. Part of this is due to their age and developmental stage, when they might be less clear about what is real and what is imaginary. Despite what their parents say, they might still feel the character or movie is real. Also, at a young age they might feel fear more intensely when faced with powerful images and it is much harder for them to put things into context.

This is especially the case if they witness the scary images alone or with peers and without a parent who can comfort and distract them while explaining what is happening. For all these reasons, it is very important to protect young children as much as possible from frightening images and games. This is increasingly harder to do given how universal access to the internet is – if not in your home then in other children’s homes. There is also the pressure among peers to engage in computer games designed for older children.

In your own situation, seeing the scary character from the movie has so badly affected your son that it has interrupted his sleep and caused him to irrationally worry that the character is coming to get him in the middle of night. Worries and fears like this can be particularly strong at bedtime and during the night when it is dark and children can feel particularly alone.

It is good that he is able to talk to you about what happened and to share his fears with you. It would be much worse if he could not speak directly about what happened or if he repressed his fears. Below are some more ideas on helping him further.

Help your son express his fears

When helping a child with anxiety you have to be patient and understanding. Progress can appear slow with lots of setbacks and it is easy for both you and your son to get frustrated. The important thing is to communicate that it is completely understandable how he feels and to encourage him to be patient and compassionate with himself. For example you might say, “lots of children would be freaked out by the image you saw” or “it would be normal to find it hard to sleep”. It is helpful if you make it okay for him to freely share the details of his irrational fears as these are better expressed to an understanding listener than repressed. You could say, “once you have had a bad experience like that sometimes you wake with bad dreams or believe the character is in the wardrobe – even though you know it is not true, it can feel like it is true”.

Express positive belief in your son

As you listen to your son, it is important to also express a strong belief that he will get through this problem, “though it might take time, your fears will fade and you will get through it”. In addition, make sure to identify his strengths, “part of the problem is that you have a great imagination, you are just imagining the wrong things”. You should also notice any signs of progress, “you have been brave, facing your fears and getting to sleep by yourself” and to remind him of your support, “we will sort this out together, don’t you worry”.

Get help for your son

Given the length of time he is coping with these fears, you could consider getting some professional help for your son, where he might be taught some more active strategies to manage his fears. For example, he might be encouraged to set a goal not to give in to his fear and to stop checking if the character is in the wardrobe at night. Instead he could be taught positive self-talk to reassure himself and to get back to sleep by using relaxation techniques.

Even during a couple of sessions your son might make great progress and it might shorten the time he takes to get back on track. Ask your GP about a referral to see a child mental health worker in primary care or the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) or elsewhere.

Help your son tackle his fears yourself

As a parent you can also teach your son strategies to manage his fears. In addition to those above, there are lots of creative techniques that you can use with anxious children that draw on their active imaginations to tackle their fears in fun, light-hearted ways. For example, you could get him to:

– Imagine the feared character being placed in jail or being destroyed;

– Rehearse a scene with him talking to the character and banishing him from his world;

– Draw a picture of the character but change the image and make him ridiculous, by adding a silly hat or a moustache;

– Imagine the character speaking with a funny squeaky voice that is impossible not laugh at.

It can be useful to teach him some relaxation techniques just before bedtime such as counting breaths, relaxing each part of the body or using positive self-talk that you can practice together which he can use when he wakes at night.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering a series of talks and courses on Parenting Children and Teenagers starting on October 10th. See for details