Last night our oldest son and I cuddled while talking about his triumphs as a pirate in his school play. As his special time with me dwindled, he pleaded that we allow him to sleep with us.
“I’ll sleep on the couch and I won’t make any noise.”
His tone reminded me of the panic I felt as a child. Our son’s pirate banter of “walk the plank” so aptly described both of our doomed and gloomed bedtime exiles.
As a parent who battled bedtime anxiety as a child, I strive to transform “walk the plank” to “walk the line.” Walk the line between catering to children’s bedtime anxiety and forcing them to contain their overwhelming fears single-handedly. Here are some tips that may help you find this balance:
1. Engage your child in a discussion about what makes a comforting sleep environment.
When children have a voice in creating their bedtime atmosphere, they may accept it more willingly.
Every child has a unique opinion about a soothing sleep environment, as illustrated by our 4 children’s 4 distinct decisions: Noah sleeps with his reading light on. Zachary likes Clay Aiken crooning in the background. Rebecca insists on full-laboratory brightness, unless she sleeps in one of her brother’s top bunks. Seth shuns human company and instead prefers the comfort of his favorite trains named Edward and James. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box spring, and consider options that may seem unconventional.
2. Replace: “Don’t think about that” with “Think about this instead.”
Imagine if I say: “Don’t think about Tyrannosaurus Rex!” Your thoughts go right to Tyrannosaurus Rex, right? Your child will do the same. A more constructive approach is to busy one’s mind with alternative neutral thoughts that leave no mental space for worry. For example, suggest that your child name a musical instrument, Disney character or grocery item for every letter of the alphabet. Or, encourage your child to plan his or her next birthday party or even name the family car.
3. Don’t tell your child to “go to sleep.”
If it feels like a chore, this may create anxiety in your child—making them unable to sleep. Instead, encourage them to rest on their bed. They’re more likely to take you up on this if it feels like a suggestion and they have a choice.
4. Transform “bedtime” to “bedroom time.”
Strive to create a comforting bedroom atmosphere where the prescribed activity is resting not sleeping. Neither children nor parents can force the arrival of sleep. What children and parents can control is preparing a calm physical and emotional bedroom climate, which the body responds to with sleep. I bet my bottom bunk on it.
Lisa B. Gordon, is a Ph D. and Licensed Clinical Psychologist. To learn more about combating bedtime anxiety, contact her at 847-733-4300 x524 or e-mail at [email protected]