It’s now 20 minutes past bedtime and your child is still giving you a laundry list of reasons about why they can’t go to sleep.
“There are monsters in my room.”
“I’m scared of bad guys.”
“There are too many shadows in here.”
“I’m afraid and I don’t want to be alone.”
As a parent, your natural reaction is to reassure your child, but in many cases, and for many kids, reassurance is not enough, and it simply doesn’t work. When fears and worries affect a child’s sleep, it may present as trouble falling asleep at night, staying asleep, night time wakings or even early morning wakings.
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If you have an anxious child or a child that has a hard time sleeping due to worrying, you’re going to need a few more tools in your sleep toolbox in order to help them unpack all the issues that make it hard for them to get a good night’s sleep.
Start By Creating A Plan
So, what does work?
Thankfully, there are many things you can do to help your child manage their fears and worries at bedtime. However, understand that it’s not a quick fix, and as a parent, you need to be able to dedicate some time to helping them restructure the way they feel about the things that keep them up at night. Additionally, before we get into specifics, know that they best time to start the process of building a smoother, worry-less bedtime, is not at bedtime at all. When your child has been struggling with sleep, chances are that both of you already start to feel heightened anxiety and stress as bedtime approaches, making it a less than ideal time for a calm conversation.
During the day, and preferably at a time when you have few constraints, start a positive discussion about bedtime. When you’re dealing with kids aged five and up, you can collaborate with them and build a realistic sleep plan that they feel some ownership towards. And then when things start to unravel at bedtime, you can go back to the plan you worked on together instead of trying to come up with something in the moment.
Tools To Overcome Fears and Worries At Bedtime
Whether it seems like your child is simply stalling or being difficult at bedtime, it’s most likely their fears and worries taking over. As kids get older, they understand and recognize that sleep helps them feel good and that they feel better when they’re rested. As such, it becomes that much more frustrating for them too when they can’t seem to break the cycle that makes them feel tired, irritable and sluggish.
Here are some of the ideas and tools you can include in your plan to help create a smoother and more peaceful bedtime.
Name Your Worry Monster
It can really help to personify worry for younger kids. Ask them to draw what they think their worry looks like and make it into a character with a name. That way, you can talk about what worry is telling them, and separate it from their actual self, which can help them feel a better sense of control over their worry. This tool works for young kids, right through to teenagers.
Give That Monster A Makeover
Because kids response well to visual cues and images, turning their monster or the thing they’re afraid of into something silly can do a lot to diffuse fears. If they’re worried about a monster in the closet or under the bed, ask them to draw the monster and then give that monster a makeover! Start by asking them something like “what if we gave monster a funny hat?” or “let’s add a ballerina tutu to your monster”. By turning something scary into something really silly, the fear is taken out of the monster.
Teach Them How To Fact Check
This exercise is common in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for both adults and children. Ask your child what their biggest worry is and then spend some time taking it apart and fact checking what’s actually true about that worry. So, for example, if they are worried about monsters under the bed, talk with them about if they’ve actually ever seen a monster in their room, and about how we know that monsters are make believe and are made up in someone’s imagination. As kids get older, you can use their cognitive reasoning skills to help them figure out what’s really true about what worry is trying to tell them.
Choose A Better Story
One of the things that often happens when kids with busy minds try and go to sleep is that they can’t quiet their brains and then the fears and worries start to come in. Before bedtime, help your child choose a better story to occupy their mind as they try and drift off to sleep. You can make a small deck of cards that has ideas on what to think about such as:
- What do you want your next birthday cake to look like?
- Where would you like to go on vacation?
- What funny things do you think the dog/cat gets up to when we’re not home?
- What are all your favourite foods you’d bring on a picnic?
- Think of all the words you can that start with the letter M.
Have your child choose one or two cards when needed and then ask them to tell you about what they came up with in the morning. It’s a simple way to move their minds away from worrying thoughts that can disrupt falling asleep.
Don’t Slam On The Bedtime Brakes
For some kids, sudden changes and transitions can trigger stress and anxiety. If they’re playing, watching TV or even reading, coming to tell them that it’s time for bed RIGHT NOW can exacerbate their anxieties. There are many kids (and adults) that need that wind down time – in fact, it can play a critical role in helping them fall and stay asleep. A consistent and calm bedtime routine that includes connection with your child and preferably includes no screens for at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime, can make a world of difference.
Help Them Learn How To Have A Better Bedtime
Learning to sleep is a skill and like any other skill, it can take some individuals a lot of work and a lot of practice to master. We know that it can be really frustrating to have a child who doesn’t sleep well, as it often ends up affecting the whole family and leaving everyone feeling exhausted. But know that with some hard work from you and your child, combined with consistency and patience, you can help them manage their bedtime fears and worries.