Help! My Child is Afraid to Go to Sleep at Night

My Child is afraid to go to sleep at night. What can I do to help him?

child afraid to sleep

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MOLLY: We received this question from a parent whose 3-year-old son became frightened during a recent thunderstorm. He asked the parent if he would stay with him in his room, but the parent, not wanting to start that habit instead told the child to be a big boy and try to sleep. Now the child is afraid to go to sleep at night, and the parent doesn't know what to do. What do you think she can do?

MOM: Well, I would handle it somewhat differently. While I understand that she was trying to appeal to the more “grown up” side of the child, actually I think in this instance it wasn’t helpful. I think it would have been more helpful to lie down with the child for a few minutes and reassure him.  That way he gets to feel comforted. At three, he’s scared of the violence of the storm. As an adult, just to hold his hand and lie down with him for a few moments will help him recalibrate internally and settle his anxiety down. Then he knows that somebody is there for him; there’s somebody between him and the storm, so to speak. This is a big part of giving reassurance to a child.

 

MOLLY: That he knows that you’re there for him?

MOM: Right, and that he’s protected. That he doesn’t have to face this violent storm alone --I'll use that as a metaphor, too.

MOLLY: From not doing that, not giving him reassurance in the storm, what do you think happened? Why is the child now having trouble sleeping even when there is not a thunderstorm?

MOM: I think it caused him some anxiety which is translating into scared to sleep at night. This is obviously a change of behavior for the child and the fearful incident has become generalized to other situations.

MOLLY: What can the Mom do now? How can she fix it?

MOM: Once she recognizes that that might not have been the best way to handle it, she can address it directly with the child. If she doesn’t address it with him, the anxiety can take on a life of its own and can become a very long term problem that, after a while, no one remembers where it came from. In therapy, we talk about this type of anxiety as developing a life of its own, and then it becomes much more difficult to address.

For this mom, she might say something during the daytime and not necessarily at night. She want's to engage him when he’s fully functioning emotionally and not tired or hungry or about to go to bed.

She might say, “You know, I've been thinking about what happened the other night. Do you remember what happened during that terrible storm that we had? It was raining really loudly and there was a lot of thunder and lightening. You asked me to lie down with you and I said, oh be a big boy, you can manage this. Do you remember that? You know, I've thought about it and that wasn't very nice of me not to stay with you for a bit while you were scared."

Then she can say, “I’m really sorry that I didn’t stay with you during the thunderstorm, but the next time something scary happens, you let me know and I promise I’ll be there for you.”

It's not that hard to do, and the child then feels understood.

MOLLY: And that will solve the problem?

Read the rest of this conversation and Dr. Rutherford's expert advice at Conversations With My Mother.com


 

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