Closets serve an interesting dual role of representing a source of comfort and fear. For children, a wardrobe serves as an escape from the ravages of WWII and entry into Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. On the flip side, the Harry Potter series features Boggarts, shapeshifting creatures which typically inhabit closets and wardrobes only to emerge as the thing the viewer fears most.
Both of those feelings are at play in why children hide in closets. Sometimes it’s an act of fear, other times it’s done because closets represent security – and sometimes it’s both at once. Let’s take a closer look at the myriad reasons why your child may be hiding in a closet and what that means.
The Imaginative Side of Closets
A closet is, at its most basic, a big open space in which to put things. That may seem incredibly simple but, like a box, it’s that simplicity that makes it great for spurring children’s imagination. An empty box can be imagined by a child to be anything they desire, and so can space in a closet.
Maybe they think they’re hiding away in a secret word a la Narnia. Maybe they see a castle or spaceship (or TARDIS). There are any number of different ways in which children may imagine and reimagine an empty space for playtime, which in turn can give them different reasons for wanting to hide in there,
It’s worth remembering that closets give children a sense of privacy that few other places can. This as much as anything helps contribute to the potential feeling of these spaces as “secret.” There are any number of secretive special places your child may imagine your closet to be, but as long as their imagination remains positive, there’s nothing wrong with them mentally transforming closet space into any number of mysterious settings.
Monsters in the Closet
On the other hand, young children may also see closets as a “haunted” setting filled with ghosts and monsters. Just as children have a long history of viewing spaces imaginatively, there has also long been the stereotype of young children fearing monsters in their closet. Hiding in their own closet, therefore, may be a way of trying to flush out these monsters, thinking that if they stay in these closet spaces, the monsters won’t come out from them.
Closets and Autism
As is the case with many oddities of childhood behavior, children who stay excessively long in closets or adamantly insist on staying there may be another sign that your child falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. Children staying in closets on its own does not come close to pointing to this, so if you don’t have other indications that your child may be autistic, don’t worry – this on its own isn’t a sign that that’s the case. As is often the case with autism, it is less a single major sign of autistic behavior and more the collection of many little indications that may point to your child having autism.
Children with autism can stay in closets as a kind of safe space or decompression area. One of the most common issues children with autism suffer with is being overstimulated by too many sensory details at once. Autistic children often have greater sensory sensitivity than others, which means that they feel even the tiniest stimuli in a more extreme way. Even a few drops of water can feel like a rainstorm, and even a couple quiet voices can feel like a loud conversation. This kind of sensory overload can be physically and emotionally painful for the child, which is one reason why they may decide to try and hide in a closet instead, where they can be sheltered from most stimuli by staying in a place where it’s quiet, dark, and there are no other people.
There is no easy answer for how to handle this. On the one hand, you don’t want your child to feel as though they have to retreat into a closet all their life, but on the other hand, doing so may help temporarily avoid the pain of sensory overload and other autistic issues. You’ll need to find a balanced answer to this. Talk to doctors and see what they say, but also take the time to talk to your child and listen to them. They’ll be able to tell you why they retreat into the closet, which could help you better understand what they’re going through and thus help you find a way to give them the lasting help they need.
If you are worried about your child and autism, we have another article that goes over some of the other early warning signs you should look out for….
A Place to Hide From Demons
Most troubling of all, some children hide in closets as refuge from abusive situations. In these situations, closets once again play the role of safe space, albeit in a much more literal sense. Children who hide in closets in this example are doing so not because they want to be safe from any imaginary horror like monsters or because they want to lessen the amount of sensory input they receive, but simply because they think it’s the safest place for them in an already-dangerous home situation. Whether they themselves are the victims of abuse or they are hiding while a family member is being abused, hiding in the closet becomes an extremely tragic means of survival.
This literal closeting can also come with hiding in a mental closet of sorts. Children who are forced to hide in this manner are also often forced to block out the circumstances of the ordeal as they grow older. Tragically, children who go through abuse often feel as though they themselves were at fault, blaming themselves for setting off their abuser or for not helping other parties who were being abused. Either way, it is clearly not the child’s fault, as there was nothing they could have done at such a young age and are not in control of or responsible for the abuser’s actions. Even so, at such a young age, it can be hard to process such emotions and events, leading them to retreat into mental as well as physical closets where they are shut off from this reality as much as possible.
Comforting Children in the Closet
In this latter case, the lingering effects of abuse can continue to impact children in a harmful way throughout their life. If you are dealing with a child who has literally or mentally “hidden in the closet” as a result of abuse, you’ll want to try and comfort them.
When doing so, you should:
- Tell the child to remain calm, and try and calm them yourself as best as possible
- Be empathetic, understanding, and trustworthy
- Reiterate to the child that this is not their fault
- Offer whatever help, safety, and comfort you can
- Do not interrogate the child
- Do not put words in their mouth as to what happened
- Do not overreact to what they say, as this may make them feel ashamed of themselves
In addition, you should make it clear that you cannot keep the child’s secret – in many places this is against the law.
If you live in the United States, contact local child services or The National Domestic Violence Hotline. You can also contact The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. If it’s an emergency, call 911 or 999.
Recognizing why your child hides in the closet is an essential first step to getting them to keep them from shutting themselves away for good.