This week we’re answering a super common question that I get in different forms and this is: How do I get my anxious child to sleep alone?
The person who asked this question has a 10-year old who still needs their parent to stay with them at night. We’re going to call this 10-year old Francine because that is nothing like her real name. Francine is 10 going on 11. She has a younger siblings who is five. The way the family works bedtime is one parent help the five year old get to sleep and the other parent stays with Francine.
The family has a good bedtime routine — they start getting everyone pajamas and teeth brushed and settled in at around 8:30 and then theoretically lights out at 9. However Francine struggles to fall asleep and has been saying up later and later. Her parents are getting increasingly frustrated because they want to spend time together in the evening and they have things they’d like to get done, too, after the kids are in bed.
The family has tried leaving Francine alone but she will come out of her room and interrupt them repeatedly or if she does fall asleep, she will wake up several times at night and demand to either sleep with them or that they come back into her room to sit with her until she falls back asleep.
No wonder they’re frustrated. And I’m sure Francine is frustrated, too, because I’m sure she doesn’t want to create so much fuss.
The family has tried a lot of things. They’ve tried rewards, they’ve tried charts, they’ve tried sound machines. They’ve tried melatonin. They’ve met with their doctor to see if Francine has any health issues. They’ve tried getting angry and just refusing but that just drags out the inevitable and of course at night everyone is exhausted and so the parents end up giving in.
Again, this is a super common scenario. The details may be different but if you’ve got a bigger kid who still needs this much support to fall asleep, you are not alone.
First let’s talk about this issue in the context of anxiety.
There are two common reasons why anxious children might be struggling with sleep. The first is generalized anxiety, which is being worried. AS I’m sure all of you know, the deep dark quiet at night is prime worrying time. If I could see you I’d ask for a show of hands for how many of you have ever dealt with insomnia where you’re staring at the ceiling, yearning to go to sleep while your brain churns through every potential disaster and every past mistake. Well that happens to kids and teens, too. A child who is prone to worrying in the day is just as prone to worrying at night. Maybe even more prone because at night our defenses are low. We’re tired and our brains are less guarded so all of those worries we’ve been pushing aside show up and disrupt our sleep.
If you have a child who worries about worrying then they may be using you for a distraction from that worrying. Or they may find you a calming presence, someone who keeps the worry monsters at bay.
The second reason a child might struggle to sleep alone is separation anxiety. This would be a child who doesn’t want to be away from you during the day either. They may follow you from room to room, or insist on coming upstairs with you or will call to you if you go to the bathroom without letting them know you’re leaving the space. They might also have trouble separating from you for school or other activities.
These children might feel vulnerable when they’re alone or they may worry about you. They may worry about how you’re doing. Separation anxiety may be a part of their functioning long term but it can also crop up after a traumatic event. So for example, if you were recently ill if there’s been a death in the family or a neighbor was robbed, they might need you close to know that they and you are safe.
Of course both elements of anxiety might be present in one child. Francine may feel safer when a parent is with her because she worries about someone breaking in through her window and she may also find that she has more intrusive worrying thoughts that come to her at night.
In fact, one thing Francine’s parents told me in their email to me is Francine also worries about not getting enough sleep. I know how that feels and I’m sure you do, too. The later it gets, the more aware we are that morning is coming in fast, the harder it is to fall asleep.
All right. Now we have a picture of what’s happening and we can talk about what to do.
Sleep issues are often deeply entrenched. They’ve usually been going on for awhile. It’s a Parenting Pitfall that creeps up on us. We create a routine to help everyone get to sleep and then the routine gets more complicated, it gets more demanding and we get more stuck. That’s because parents tend to start trying to deal with it and then give up because they’re exhausted. What happens is that we are actually training our kids to push more and more and more.
Let me explain this by giving a fake example. Let’s say you have a child who, like Francine, wants you to stay in the room with them. You tell them you will stay for ten minutes, that’s it. They start crying when you get up to leave at ten minutes. They beg and beg and you stand there arguing with them. Finally you leave the room and then they start screaming. You come back and tell them to settle down and try to leave again. They get out of bed following you, still crying. You take them by the hand and bring them back but they leap from the bed sobbing and race out the door. You go after them. This goes on for so long that you give in and stay with them until they finally cry themselves to sleep.
Or some version of that.
That parent may feel heartbroken, or manipulated, or trapped, or angry, or embarrassed, or defensive. I’ve heard from parents who feel all kinds of ways about it. And let me add that it is absolutely ok to not want to co-sleep with your anxious child. And if that’s you, then you’re going to need a structured plan.
Parents are going to have to make the break for sure, which means they’re going to need to push things with their child and it’s likely their child isn’t going to be happy about that. But with a structured plan, clear communication with the child so they’re not surprised, and graduated exposure — which means taking things step by little step — they will see results. And they will be able to build on small results to get to big results.
One of the most challenging things about making this shift is helping parents understand that teasing it out, teasing apart the problem and creating a plan isn’t going to be a quick fix. The longer it’s been going on, the longer it will likely take to get unstuck. Also the more intense the child is in general, the more intense we can expect the process to be. But when we have realistic expectations then we won’t be disappointed or discouraged.
What we know is that parents hold the key to making a difference in these kinds of sleep issues. If you want help with your anxious child’s sleep issues, you can find it in my Child Anxiety Support program. The Strong Kids, Strong Families walks you through how to make a plan and I am available to answer your questions and help you personalize the plan. I’m there via private message, community posts, and in our live events, which include chats, workshops and drop in office hours.
And I also want you to know that in April we’ll be doing our first cohort in the program. What this means is that in the first week of April we’ll be doing the first lesson in Strong Kids, Strong Families together. All of the live events will be about that first lesson — other resources, more supports and information. The program is alway open — I don’t do launches because I want it to be available to anyone who needs it whenever they need it. But I will be walking through the program with all members, six weeks, one lesson each week so that we can be doing it together as a community. To get in on that, join today and we’ll be getting started together April 3rd 2023. If you have questions let me know.
You do not have to deal with this struggle alone and I promise you that things can improve.