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My 3 year old daughter has no idea what ghosts or scary things are. She doesn't play on youtube or watches scary things on TV, except for Disney movies like Moana and so forth. She mentioned about 3 times something about a black doll with no face nor legs just staring at mommy and daddy while we sleep and doesn't like us.

She sleeps mostly in her room alone with a night light and last night she crawled into our bed and lay between us and all of the sudden she screamed like something I've never heard and pulled the blanket over her face, she looked again and did the same. The bathroom light was on so the room was illuminated. She was so terrified she could hardly tell us what was wrong and finally after a while whispered there is a thing with the black doll at the foot of the bed. She didn't sleep the entire night until 5 in the morning.

How can I help her? She doesn't even know about ghosts and so forth.

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    Did you turn on the lights when she complained that the "black doll" was there? If so, did it disappear? If not, why did you not do so? If it is just an imaginary thing it probably is related to the darkness, and the simplest way of dealing with it is to turn on the lights not only to make it go away but also to prove the correlation. – user21820 Jan 30 at 3:10
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    Do you think it's a ghost, or is that the term that you put to "black doll at the foot of the bed"? – RonJohn Jan 30 at 6:14
  • I'm agnostic to the existence of ghosts. I'm religious etc. so it isn't implausible. But I think it is more the likely a new persons experiences, in learning to understand the world around them. Basically its probably a combination of darkness/shadows, recent new memories, like a doll, and then unexplainable feeling of sacredness. Anxiety happens, I don't pretend to answer why, it could be for infinitely complex reasons. But this combination probably lead to this idea. Too much multimedia can possibly hamper as she is learning what is typical, possible and what isn't. Video, pictures can ... – marshal craft Jan 30 at 11:50
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    When this happens, immediately but calmly investigate the area thoroughly to show that there is nothing there. Let her watch so she can see that there is nothing there. You may be surprised. When my kid was young she complained about a creature in her room. Every time I would leave the room she would start screaming. So I stayed in the room longer. I turned the light off while I was in there. I tried various things but she screamed when I left. It turned out a shadow was being cast on the wall right where I was sitting when I was in the room. When I left and turned the light off,... – Readin Jan 31 at 3:11
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    "has no idea what ghosts or scary things are" and the fact she has watched Moana are conflicting statements. In Moana they literally go to "the realm of monsters" and there is an evil darkness draining life from all the islands in the ocean. – Tom Bowen Feb 1 at 11:55

12 Answers 12

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I heard that when you insist that there is no scary things out there, she feels alone. Because she is sure of what she sees, and she needs your help, and when you keep saying that there is no scary things, monster or ghosts, she feels abandoned. I think when she is terrified, it is better not to mirror these feelings. When she talks about a scary things, and see her mother is worried, she will probably think that her mother is worried because of the scary thing. So, staying calm and being mindful about our own face mimics is important. So, I suggest that go and look at this scary things with her. You are strong, and you can protect her from the ghost. Give this feeling. I do not suggest to use logic and long explaining, it just makes her more confused.

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    This is what helped me when I was young and would see things in the dark. I started letting the cat sleep on the foot of the bed. If I saw something scary I'd sit up (which would wake up the cat) and look at him. I knew cats could see well in the dark so if he was just laying there looking at me and not at the giant scary monster thing beside the bed, then that monster must only be my brain playing tricks on me. I knew that in the event of an actual monster, he'd be aggressive or scared. It's like getting a second opinion, but emotionally. – bta Jan 29 at 23:44
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    Stay calm, +1. The only time I've seen my mom freak out was when I was doing something wrong. It probably helped that she taught science for 30y and doesn't believe in ghosts.... – Mazura Jan 30 at 2:52
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    @bta I too relied on my cat as a child both as a reality check, and, sometimes as bait. I had a fear of snapping turtles as a kid, and was convinced there was one under my bed. If I had to get up at night, I would push the cat off the bed first, figuring it would get eaten instead of me. Then, I would jump as far as I could away from the bed, in case snappers don’t eat cat. During the day, if I lost a toy under there, I’d push the cat under. Just in case. He’d curl up under there and sleep or find a sock to bat around. Thankfully I grew out of my fear before my beloved Sammy passed away. – Jax Jan 31 at 16:47
  • @jax Beloved bait ;) – DKNguyen Feb 1 at 14:55
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It sounds like your daughter may be experiencing night terrors:

Night terrors are common in children aged between 3 and 8 years old.

A child who experiences night terrors may scream, shout and thrash around in extreme panic, and may even jump out of bed.

Their eyes will be open, but they're not fully awake.

[...]

The best thing to do if your child is having an episode of night terrors is to stay calm and wait until they calm down.

Your description that this keeps her awake the entire night isn't a perfect fit with the textbook example of night terrors, though.

The emphasis on this doll character seems reminiscent of hypnagogic hallucinations:

Hypnagogic hallucinations can occur at the onset of sleep, either by day or at night. They are usually quite vivid and visual.

Visual hallucinations usually consist of simple forms such as coloured circles or parts of objects that may be constant or changing in size. A formed image of an animal or a person may appear and it is often in colour.

Such hallucinations, while less common than night terrors, are also linked to sleep disturbances, and young children go through frequent changes in sleep patterns and sleep need. (Since you may already be aware that it is also linked to narcolepsy: while I don't see any reason to think that's the most likely conclusion, note that we're not here to give medical advice).

There are of course also the mundane explanations. Children have ordinary nightmares, too, where a recurring character may be more common than in night terrors. They also have a vivid imagination, a still developing understanding of the world around them, and there's the basic human inclination to see human traits in non-human objects. A young child would be more prone to pareidolia than an adult, too, so it could be just shadows playing tricks. You're saying the room was light, which I take as a suggestion that this could not be the case, but I wouldn't rule it out based on that. The biggest problem with that explanation, as I see it, is the persistency and intensity of the fears, as you describe them, which would again take me back to night terrors.

All in all, it is not uncommon for young children to be scared of things at night. It is unpleasant both to witness and to experience, but not dangerous. I don't know that there are any proven remedies, although the NHS article on night terrors mentions a relaxing bedtime routine might help.

Lastly, the NHS article has a "When you should seek help" section, which I'm including in its entirety for you to assess whether to escalate to professional assistance:

Most children eventually grow out of night terrors. But talk to your GP if they're occurring several times a night or most nights.

Your GP will be able to check whether something that's easily treatable is causing the episodes.

For example, large tonsils could be causing breathing problems at night and waking your child.

In a small number of children who have frequent episodes of night terrors, referral to a specialist service may be needed.

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    I had these symptoms for a few years as an adult, occurring at roughly the same time most nights. Not quite seeing things but like remembering having seen it a moment ago, feeling a presence, and reoccurring narratives. The feeling would last 10-20 seconds before I calmed down and felt silly but still wound up. Even as an adult and knowing better, they're terrifying and felt very real. Poor kid. What helped me is being soothed and calmly told everything's alright until I was fully awake. Eventually the worst of it went away, but I still occasionally feel creeped out around that time. – Schwern Jan 29 at 23:13
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    My wife gets hypnagogic hallucinations; we've learned that for her, the trick is to turn on a light. They evaporate as her brain wakes up a bit further. – Jason Jan 30 at 13:09
  • Huh...I can finally put a name to my own childhood experiences. hypnagogic hallucinations almost perfectly describes what I would see while lying in bed before falling asleep. – asgallant Jan 31 at 9:25
  • My 3rd child suffered from night terrors for about a year. He would often not be able to remember what happened but the few times he was able to articulate what he was “seeing” was always the same: a man with no face. So, it was a “recurring” vision, I think. He was about 4, so not old enough to be very detailed. We didn’t pry, so as not to force him to relive it. Anyway, we found that his night terrors could be prevented by waking him just before they usually occurred, which were at about the same time every time (we kept a journal.) BTW-trying to wake them during a NT makes it worse. Don’t. – Jax Jan 31 at 16:28
  • I wouldnt worry my three year ild used to always have these episodes but they died down by four into five. She is now five and never has these. We used to freak out because her eyes would be wide open and shed be screaming and would stay up all night. – JonH Jan 31 at 18:23
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This answer might just save your life...

Get a carbon monoxide detector, make sure yours works.

"ghosts" and spirits have never been real, but they were much more common before the age of electrification, when houses were lit by burning gas indoors....

Even modern houses burn gas indoors, but today we mostly vent it outside. But if your venting or your appliances are malfunctioning, you may have dangerous buildup that is causing hallucinations. Smaller people are more easily affected by this.

Especially now that it's winter time and your windows are probably closed. Get a CO detector. CO can cause hallucinations including ghosts. I hope you get this sorted out before someone gets hurt.

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    Could you possibly add a source for this claim, like the top answer has. – user39078 Jan 31 at 23:09
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    I agree that this answer really needs sourcing. You can certainly find anecdotal cases of this sort of thing, and it is true that carbon monoxide poisoning can cause hallucinations. However, in an admittedly brief search of published literature, I was unable to find evidence that reports of ghost sightings were more common when houses were lit by gas, although it is not an absurd hypothesis on the face of it. More importantly, though, I was not able to find any evidence of this being an explanation for many or most reports of ghost sightings. – Obie 2.0 Feb 1 at 4:32
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    There are numerous non-supernatural explanations that are not carbon monoxide poisoning, including sleep paralysis (as mentioned in the other answer), infrasound, mental illness and so forth. CO poisoning also has other symptoms. Someone reading this answer would probably get the impression that it is quite likely that any supposed ghost sighting is caused by potentially lethal carbon monoxide leaks, and if that's the claim, it really needs to be backed up. – Obie 2.0 Feb 1 at 4:34
  • Is there evidence that CO causes ghostly hallucinations beyond the fact that ghost sightings were more common before electricity? (which could be attributed to a lot of things, e.g. change in culture, science, etc.) - that said I would never argue that it's a bad idea to have a CO detector! – colmde Feb 1 at 16:52
  • It's historically accurate that in the 19th century and early 20th century, there was an increase in documented ghost sightings by 'respectable' people (read: wealthy) who used gas (natural or coal tar) as lighting. It's hypothesized that this was due to carbon monoxide poisoning as many of these events were consistent with the symptoms of CO poisoning such as the sensation of someone pressing down hard on the victim's chest. The end of this 'ghost' epidemic coincided with the widespread adoption of electric lighting. Here a contemporary example: npr.org/transcripts/533791342 – JimmyJames Feb 1 at 19:42
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On a whim of the moment I helped my 3-yearold out of fear of ghosts by quickly ad lib-”befriending” the percieved ghost from my childs imagination.

Like: Oh, but that is just my friend... (surprised deer in headlights stare from kid, gears in head moving)

From that position of friendly imaginatory relationship, which invited questions and curiosity more than fear from my kid, it was easy to move on to comforting talks along the lines of ”there is nothing dangerous here, everything wishes us well, it is good that you talk about what scares you, sometimes I get scared too, of (other things namely [...cars on roads and... - real dangers to children]) I’ll have a word later with my friend [ghost] as you felt scared” and so forth.

And after keeping this up for a while my kid moved on to other thoughts. Repeated as neccessary.

Other children may need different responses, but this worked very well for us.

As an added note, my own response did not lead to my child developing a belief in ghosts, it rather shortly was replaced with asking for company going into dark rooms, help with turning lights on, then grew away with age.

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    I particularly like this answer because it directly addresses the issue of hostility. While a parent cannot see the ghost, he or she can point out that the ghost has not harmed anyone. In the parent's shoes, I would encourage befriending the ghost and asking questions of it. – donjuedo Feb 1 at 12:33
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Hallucinations can have a medical cause

Your description of a "black doll with no face" sounds a lot like things I see when I have an episode of sleep paralysis. People tend to hallucinate the random patterns of noise from the small amounts of light they're seeing into figures standing over them- with different interpretations depending on cultural influences. (aliens, djinn, witches, angry ancestors, etc). I can imagine a child hallucinating a doll in the absence of something more sinister being available. The paralysis part comes from the way your muscles are fully relaxed and take time to wake up. Its a complex and not fully understood field of research.

The same process of misinterepreting vague things you see in the dark can be a result of poisoning, another post has already mentioned carbon monoxide which is a possibility. People also see these kinds of things when they have a fever. Its the same process of your mind trying to make sense of random patterns. Because people standing over you while you sleep is a genuine threat, there seems to be a bias toward this possibility. After all, we are our own greatest predator.

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    Side note: My friends and I stop sleep paralysis by making a fist. Might help you / others. – user39078 Jan 31 at 23:19
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My son had night terrors occasionally, and would wake in great fear, screaming. Simple comfort until he was calm worked, plus open discussions about what nightmares and dreams are. It might also help to introduce your child to a book of optical illusions to talk about how things are not always what they appear to be. When a young child is in terror from a shadow or nightmare, it is not helpful for adults to even entertain the idea that the child is seeing something supernatural. Young children are very impressionable, and if they overhear or witness a parent being excited (or freaked out) even slightly by the idea that she might be seeing a ghost, it will not help to remedy the situation in a healthy direction.

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  • I think the book about optical illusions is a good idea. – Kingsley Feb 1 at 5:36
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There may be a simple reason for the fear, something misinterpreted in the world outside.

Mine was a terror of giants . It turned out to be the farm workers who walked on stilts tending to the hop plants in the field next door (1960's Kent UK).

Their heads appeared over an 8 foot high wall.

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My niece had this when she was a baby. It was a monster in the room.

So, I came back from Loch Ness with a little cloth monster, and my sister had the brilliant idea of keeping it under the bed. "Is there a monster under the bed? Oh, yes, here it is, say goodnight to Monster."

If this persists, get her to describe how the black doll looks, and you and she can make a suitable doll together - maybe dress up one that is already there - give it a name, put it at the foot of the bed. Then every night, "Goodnight to Dollie, Dollie you keep a watch over her, promise?" "Yes, momma."

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Not really an complete answer, but wanted to add it as some experience:

When I was small, sometimes I saw a big spider move in the corner of my eye, in my bed. Scared the living *** out of me. My dad would come, catch the spider with his hands and took it outside my room, with the promise to release it outside. The fact that he caught it and removed the danger calmed me down and I could sleep again.

Later I've learned: There never was a spider.

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Ok I am not a parent, but I have encountered this problem many times myself. She may be experiencing nightmares, given that dreams come from images in her past life being pieced together to form what we call, Dreams. She could have went to a toy store and saw that doll, and then experienced a frightful feeling before or after that. I know i have. Just ask her if she saw anything scary before, and make sure that before she watches ANYTHING on youtube, check who the Youtuber is, and watch the movie yourself. Youtubers can put scary things in their videos to scare kids.

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Many years ago, on vacation and staying in a cabin, our then-4-year-old son woke us up two nights in a row with similar terrors. He was only able to tell us that he saw a bad person who wanted to hurt him. Each time, we made sure the cabin was physically secure, comforted him as best we could, and put him back to bed.

Now, in this cabin we had a small portable TV with built-in DVD player, and we had been letting him watch "Robin Hood" when he laid down for bed. The third night, we heard him screaming again and ran to check on him. To our complete horror, we saw this on the TV:

enter image description here

It's an alternate ending, included as a "special feature" on the DVD, and had auto-played after the regular movie had ended. (The full alternate ending can be found on YouTube.)

We learned our lessons: be very careful what you let your kids watch, even if (in some cases, especially if) you think it's safe made-for-children stuff; and it's a lot better to put them to sleep by reading from a good book rather than letting them watch any form of TV! Even innocent scenes can be twisted by a half-awake little brain into a horrific nightmare.

I don't know if this story has any relationship to what's happening with your daughter, but I wanted to share it here on the off chance it may help you or others.

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Have you considered performing an exorcism?

While I think it's probably mundane in nature (it seems like a textbook case of sleep paralysis to me), if you think it might be supernatural at nature (ghosts, or demons pretending to be ghosts), you might want to perform an exorcism. If nothing else, it'll help put your mind at ease, and hopefully stop your own reactions from scaring your child.

Depending on your faith, the exact methods for performing an exorcism might vary, from asking a Catholic priest to visit your house and perform the Vade Retro Satana, to Western neopagans burning herbal incense or Taoists setting off fireworks. I would recommend that if you decide you do want an exorcism performed, you should talk to your priest, pastor, guru, or other spiritual leader; it might be a ritual performed by the clergy, or it might be something any believer can do, and they would likely be able to give you advice on how to proceed.

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    -1: Such an act would confirm the existence of "the ghost" for the child, making the fear much more persistent. The act of exorcism can easily be more terrifying for the child than this experience itself. There are no evidence of ghosts existing or exorcism working, but this would make things much worse. – Neinstein Jan 31 at 2:19
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    @Neinstein To play devil's advocate (heh), the child wouldn't have to be physically present for the exorcism, would they? (I don't know anything about exorcism rituals—I'm legitimately asking.) – BalinKingOfMoria Reinstate CMs Jan 31 at 2:27
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    @BalinKingOfMoriaReinstateCMs A handful of the exorcists would act as it was the child itself posessed with bad karma or whatever. This literally happened to my girlfriend. She used to experience the presence of "ghosts" as a child just like OP's. Parents took her to a psychic. She told her that she is born as a person who attracts bad spirits, and they will follow her. She is 22, and still scared of dark and sleeping alone. Talk about helping her. – Neinstein Jan 31 at 2:33
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    @Neinstein And today I learned.... sorry to hear that about your girlfriend :-( – BalinKingOfMoria Reinstate CMs Jan 31 at 5:40
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    A similar approach worked on me when I was 3 years old. I was afraid of an imaginary cat under my bed, so my father pretended to capture the cat in a blanket and release it out the front door. The cat never scared me again, since it was gone. – FlanMan Jan 31 at 9:35

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