How do I help a child with separation anxiety go to sleep?
I like this question because the person answering it already knows something that a lot of parents miss, which is that sometimes our bedtime challenges with kids have to do with separation anxiety.
Now remember anxiety is more than a preference. Lots of children would prefer to sleep with their parents or have their parents lay down with them to help them fall asleep. And this is absolutely fine as long as it’s fine for the family. Bedtime routines and co-sleeping are personal family choices and if it’s working for the family, great. The concern is when it’s not working for the family. The concern is when
—A parent wants time alone in the evening and can’t get that time because they have to lay down with their kids
—Or when parents and kids are losing sleep
—or when a child would like to go to a slumber party or sleepovers at a grandparents house but they’re afraid and so are reluctantly missing out.
It’s also ok to focus on change because the parents want change. MaybeThey’re sick of laying down with their kids, they’re sick of tantrums when they try to leave, they want their beds back to themselves and can’t get their kids to move out.
Often the parents I talk to feel guilty because when they push their children to sleep on their own, the kids seem truly unhappy and afraid. the parents may worry that their own need for space or time alone or privacy is selfish.
To that I say, if it’s not working then it’s not working. And the answer isn’t always that parents just have to suck it up, buttercup. No. This is especially true when we’re talking about anxiety — if we’ve identified separation anxiety as the issue — then it needs attention because anxiety does NOT get better without a plan.
If you’re not sure whether or not it’s separation anxiety you can look to see if worries about separation are present in other areas for the family
For example a child who struggles with playdates or getting dropped off at school. Perhaps the parent has trouble leaving the house without the child. I’ve talked to parents whose kids will chase the car down the road because they don’t want their parents to leave.
Sometimes parents report to me that they aren’t able to go down to the basement to do laundry or that their child will check in if the parent is in the shower for too long.
But often the problem starts with sleep issues. (I’ll say as an aside, if it’s not anxiety and is a preference — if separation anxiety isn’t present anywhere else — it’s still ok to change things up if you need things to change. It’ll probably just be a bit easier.)
Starting with sleep can make sense for anxiety intervention because it is a regular routine for the family. Remember that anxiety is about avoidance and what the child wants to avoid is separation from you so what you’re going to need to do is separate.
This sounds simple but of course it’s complicated. In the child Anxiety Support program, specifically the Strong Kids, Strong Families course, we talk about the way to design a personalized plan to address your child’s anxiety.
The plan needs to include what to do when things go badly. This isn’t pessimistic, it’s realistic. Children who don’t want to do things that scare them will try not to do them. They will cry, they will beg and plead, they may meltdown and get destructive. We need to know what to do when this happens. We need to recognize it as an anxiety response and prepare to care for our kids through it. And for ourselves.
It’s not easy to see our children struggle and it’s not easy to be the target of that struggle. Not only will we feel impatient and even angry, we also are likely to feel guilty or worried that what we’re doing will somehow harm our child. When we plan for the worst case scenario then we are ready to lovingly, respectfully and supportively address the anxiety. We know what to do. We already have a response plan in place.
Every child and family and parent is different so your plan needs to make sense for your child and for you and it needs safe for everyone.
I remember talking to a parent about addressing sleep issues with their child and as they talked through their fears about what might happen, they recognized that some of their fears were unrealistic.
They also realized that like their child, they were avoiding their own anxiety. Just as their child was avoiding separation because they were anxious about being alone, the parent was avoiding upsetting their child because the parent was anxious about their child’s meltdowns.
This is why the process is so important; not only are you helping your child to face their anxiety, you are learning to address and manage your own anxiety about your child. This is good stuff. It’s why facing child anxiety heals the whole family.
You might notice here that the first step in helping a child with separation anxiety go to sleep — which was the original question — is not focusing on sleep. It’s focusing on the anxiety. Sleep comes later. Sometimes much later. Sometimes much later that night — I would assume people were going to get to bed late the night that start their intervention — and sometimes much later in the process.
But not always. Often when kids get a taste of their ability to face their fears, they do better. They get stronger. They grow more quickly. It depends on the child, it depends on the plan, it depends on the parents ability to execute that plan, and it depends on how entrenched the family is in their child’s anxiety. The longer the family has been avoiding dealing with the anxiety, the harder it might be to get unstuck. But what a great motivator to deal with it now, right?
If you need help for an under five and getting them to sleep, I’d encourage you to check out Macall Gordon’s work at LittleLiveWires.com. But if your child is five or older and you’re still struggling with bedtime separation, please reach out to me. If you go to my contact page you can reach out to me via the form or even schedule a quick free consult to learn more about the program and see if it’s a fit for your family.