Last week we talked about whether or not co-sleeping causes separation anxiety and concluded that no, it’s more complicated than that and this week’s question is related so I scheduled them right next to each other. This one is: Is it better to make my anxious child sleep on their own? Let’s go through the whole question with some details disguised to protect the confidentiality of the family. This family has an older child — older elementary — who wants to sleep with heir parents because when they sleep alone, they wake up afraid and come in. The parents find this disruptive for everyone’s sleep but also want to be supportive. They want to know, is it better to ask their child to sleep on their own even when they’re scared? Or is it better to give in and let them climb into bed with their parents.
As I said last week, this is a super common question so it’s no surprise it came up from two different families in the audience so close together.
Let’s get away from “better” as an adjective because it implies a “worse.” Instead let’s ask, “Which is more effective in supporting my child in their anxiety.”
Now you might remember last week I said that if a family is happy co-sleeping, then great. Go for it. But this family is not and I totally understand. It’s ok to want to sleep by yourself. Will you be doing your child damage if you insist on it? Even if they’re scared? No.
Let me explain more about that.
Sometimes parents share their concern that asking their child to face their fears will be traumatizing. So let’s talk about it.
First let’s consider the context of the parent-child relationship. Is this a relationship where the child is getting their basic physical and emotional needs met? Like are you supplying food, clothing, shelter, and basic emotional support? Is this relationship a safe place for your child to share their feelings? Is it safe for them to be less than perfect? Is there unconditional positive regard — a general love, respect, and acceptance for the child themselves? And note, this does not mean blanket approval for their behavior or every little thing they do, it means for themselves, who they are. So it’s perfectly ok to grouch about them leaving their dirty dishes in the sink. And it’s ok to not want them to climb into bed with you.
Rejecting behaviors is not the same thing as rejecting them.
In a generally loving, respectful relationship where children are generally getting their needs met there is not just room to demand more of them — like that they learn to sleep alone — it’s also necessary.
It is not traumatizing to be reminded that children are separate from their parents. They are meant to grow and to outgrow us. If they rely on us too much — beyond what is developmentally appropriate — that is more likely to be damage them than if we push. Gently but firmly pushing our kids is part of parenting. It’s a tricky balance. We want to push enough that the reluctant growers learn to grow but not so much that we push them beyond that which they are capable. And that’s where parents of anxious kids get stuck. But I want you to lean on that loving, respectful relationship. When they’re toddlers we stop them from running into the street even if they really want to, even if it makes them really mad. Right? We protect them and ask them to learn the rules by reminding them and they grow. They grow and learn the rules and learn not to run into the street and they might hate us in the moment but they don’t hate us. It doesn’t hurt the relationship.
Likewise, an anxious child who wants to co-sleep isn’t going to like it if their parents say no. But that doesn’t mean the parents should automatically say yes. Instead the parents can set those boundaries. When we say no to the anxious child, we are saying, “I believe you have the capacity to handle this. I believe you have the capacity to grow through it.”
Now some kids need more support. They need us to help them make a plan. This is what the child Anxiety Support program is all about. It’s about making that plan — with all the information and research we have about anxiety, with all the lessons I offer to better understand your child — and then executing that plan. With lots of help and opportunities to share anti-anxiety skills with your child. So. Jus know that if you’re struggling with that whole making a plan thing.
Back to trusting your relationship with your child
What we know is that connection mitigates trauma. This is something Bruce Perry teaches about in his neurosequential model. I’m going to simplify it by a lot with this example. Imagine you have two young children who both lost their homes in a fire. One child has been in and out of foster care, does not have a strong relationship with a caregiver and the other child is in a home with a loving, supportive and consistent good enough caregiver. We know that the child without strong relationships is going to struggle more with the trauma of the fire than the child who does have those safe, consistent caregivers. That’s because we are built to withstand trauma in the context of appropriate community. It doesn’t mean we won’t have trauma — it doesn’t mean that losing your house in a fire won’t bother you — but it means that this child will have greater capacity to heal.
Your child — in that generally loving, respectful relationship — can handle hard things like facing their anxiety. It doesn’t mean they’ll like it. It doesn’t mean they’ll be thrilled when you push them but it does mean that with a developmentally appropriate clear plan, strong supports, and realistic expectations they can indeed handle it.
When we don’t make a plan. When we continue to let their anxiety guide the family decision making, we are far more likely to be causing harm because what we’re doing is telling them that they’re right. They can’t handle it. They aren’t strong enough. It is too dangerous.
Now this doesn’t mean just kicking them out of the bedroom and telling them they’re on their own. Remember, I’m talking about making a plan. The plan says, I know it’ll be tough but you can handle it. Here’s what you can do instead. The plan says, You are strong enough. Here are some of the skills you can draw on. The plan says, you are safe and protected.
Again, if you’re having a hard time creating and sticking with a plan, that’s what my membership is all about.