How can I help my child get over our recent break-in?
Our house was broken into in November 2011. As a result, my nine-year-old girl is having a traumatic time getting to sleep at night. I am exhausted from her late nights and disturbed sleep and I'm looking for advice on how to help her.
This has never happened before. Our brand new car was stolen but recovered the next day. I'd appreciate any help I can get to get her back to where she was before this happened.
What a frightening situation that was for your daughter, and indeed yourselves.
It is such a horrible feeling to know that somebody has invaded such a private space as your home. Your daughter's reaction, however, sounds completely normal and very appropriate to me.
I assume that your daughter used to feel warm, secure, loved and minded in her house. Now, after the robbery, I can imagine that your house doesn't seem so secure physically. Naturally, this physical lack of security will have an impact psychologically.
I am not surprised to hear that her sleep is disrupted. We all need to feel safe, secure, warm and comfortable in order to sleep soundly.
I am sure you have had times when you have been worried about something and then found it hard to sleep because the anxieties keep running through your mind. Your daughter is no different.
In her case I am sure she still worries about another thief coming into the house. She may be thinking of all the terrible things that could have happened had the robber(s) searched through the house.
She may even worry that they looked over her while she slept. Perhaps her bedroom no longer feels like a safe place, never mind the house feeling unsafe.
So, rather than paying too much heed to her sleep, I think your focus needs to be on helping your daughter to accept and deal with any feelings of insecurity that she now has.
Once she has regained her sense of security she will, most likely, settle back into her pre-robbery sleep habits.
I guess that you have already been trying to reassure her about her safety now but in order for her to have the space to feel safe she first needs to 'finish' all the feelings of being unsafe.
If you simply try to reassure her, without showing that you can understand that she was really frightened or feels very unsafe, then she is likely to ignore the reassurances and remain feeling insecure.
To show her that you can understand (empathise), I think you need to talk to her a lot about the robbery and exactly what it was like to discover that someone had been in the house.
It may seem to be a bit strange to dwell on such a horrible event, but she is already dwelling on it either consciously or unconsciously. By talking to her about it you begin to normalise the event and to bring her feelings to the surface so that you can help her to deal with them.
So get her to describe what the experience was like from her point of view. Encourage her to begin with going to bed the night before.
Ask her, or prompt her, to describe how she felt going to bed, and what had been happening during that day prior to going to sleep. Then get her to talk about being asleep and any dreams she had or noises that she heard.
Move on to the next morning and what it was like waking up. At what point did she become aware of the robbery? What things did she see (like broken glass or a smashed lock or disturbances in the house)?
Encourage her to describe the scenes as vividly as possible (you can add detail if you have it) using as many senses (sights, smells, sounds) as she can. Then incorporate some of the feelings she may have had that went with the different experiences.
So, for example, there may have been excitement associated with something nice that was due to happen that day and then panic or fear associated with the realisation that the house was broken into and the car stolen.
Acknowledge her feelings as much as possible, saying things like "I'd guess you were terrified," or "no wonder you were scared when . . .", or "it is really frightening to think of someone breaking the lock on the door . . ."
Once she knows that you fully 'get' what it was like to be her in the midst of the robbery you can begin to reassure her about her comparative safety now.
For example it might include adding what reassurances you can about the unlikelihood of such events occurring again.
Or it may include things like explaining the new locking system you have for the house and how it now makes the house safer than ever before.
I would anticipate that if she replays the incident several times in this way her anxieties and insecurities will become properly associated to the real events that were frightening.
Once they are congruent with the actual events (being robbed is a terribly invasive and frightening thing) she will be able to process them and move on from them.
Her fears or insecurities are less likely to generalise then and she should be able to settle into the realisation that your house is secure and a safe place to be.
It may seem counterintuitive to talk a lot about an event so awful. But actually talking about it allows her, and you, to deal with it better and to really put it behind you. As that happens her sleep should also return to normal.
David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author
Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence
Health & Living