What to do When Your Child Fears Sleep

What to do When Your Child Fears Sleep

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As a therapist, one of the most common calls I receive is about children who dread going to bed. Sometimes they fear falling asleep by themselves, sometimes they need lengthy rituals to fall asleep, sometimes they fear not falling asleep — you name it. 

This is a tough one, since it tends to suck parents in, especially when they’re tired and more likely to accommodate the child’s wishes. After all, at the end of a long day, parents understandably want to get on with their own night, so they do what they can to keep the peace and avoid a meltdown. Changing the behavior for the long-term can seem overwhelming. But with the right mindset (and a little outside help), it can be done.

What’s Behind the Fear?

Generally, it’s our familiar friends: worry and anxiety. Nighttime is when children have less structure, and their minds aren’t as busy. This gives their worries ample opportunity to get to work. And worry thrives on any situation involving uncertainty or potential discomfort. Will I fall asleep? When will I fall asleep? Will I have a nightmare? Will I get sick in the middle of the night? Will someone break in while we’re sleeping? 

The only limits to the worry are their imaginations! 

Kids get these distressing thoughts and/or accompanying feelings of anxiety — stomachaches, headaches, heart racing — and they just want it to stop. Instead of riding out the feelings, trusting they’ll eventually fall asleep, they do what SEEMS to work best: they get their parents to lay down with them, count, pray or perform their bedtime routine a certain way. Since our brains learn by association, soon the connection is made that to fall asleep (or stay asleep or wake up), we need to do X. Unfortunately, in this case, X happens to be worry’s rules. The worry is in charge. The more they follow the “rules,” the stronger the association gets. The more children are convinced that these demands are the only way they’ll make it through the night, the more scared they are of not doing the behavior and performing the routine.

What’s a Parent to Do? 

Here’s my 5-step process to get your child’s sleep back on track:

  1. Make sure you have the time, energy and commitment to follow through. Depending on how long this has been your child’s pattern, their fear of changing things up will likely be impacted. The longer the pattern, the greater the fear.
  2. Be mindful of your language. Breaking worry’s rules can be really scary for kids, and that fear needs to be acknowledged. The other part of the sentiment is “…and I am going to help you do a little bit more than you think you can do” or “…and I believe you can do this.” 
  3. Break the rules! Worry’s rules, that is. Whatever your child “needs to do” to fall asleep are worry’s rules. Make sure you’re consistent and that your child is leading the charge. The easiest way to strengthen a behavior is to be inconsistent (rationale for #1), so it’s really important not to give in to worry once you start making changes.
  4. Stay the course! Remember that it may get worse before it gets better. Depending on how much your child’s worry fights back, it may get worse.
  5. Reward Fs! In my work, Fs are golden since they represent Flexibility. Bs and Cs are also good for Bravery and Courage.

While I’d love to be able to give parents a plan with specifics, to do so would be a disservice. There are too many things to consider: the child’s age, your tolerance for their distress, and more. For example, do you want to pull the bandage off quickly or slowly? To answer that, you’ll need to know your own style, as well as your child’s style. To what do you think everyone will respond best? Every situation is nuanced, and that’s where a therapist can help you through the process. 

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. At the end of the day, the message we want to teach our kids is that while it may feel scary, the situation isn’t dangerous. If you make sure your behaviors are aligned with this message, you’ll teach your child to respond the same way. 

About the author

Joanna Hardis, LISW, is a cognitive behavioral therapist and Gestalt-certified coach. A mother of three, she combines her personal parenting with her 20+ years of professional experience. She breaks down the evidence-based research into down-to-earth guidance and support. Her specialties are treating adults and children who have anxiety disorders or obsessive compulsive spectrum disorders, are going through life transitions (like life after divorce), or who would like help with their parenting skills. She also offers coaching services for those who want help reaching their goals. Coaching generates change by creating awareness and then offering a different way of being and doing. Joanna lives in Cleveland Heights with her three children and their, dog Giggsy. Learn more about Joanna at joannahardis.com Follow Giggsy on Instagram: @giggsy.annyong.the.dog

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