Does your child find it hard to settle at night?
Is your child afraid of the dark or monsters under the bed?
There are all sorts of reasons that your child may not be able to settle at night, but today, I want to talk about
Why it’s important the way we respond to our child’s cry for help
Can you respond from a place of helping and kindness as opposed to reacting from a place of frustration and wanting to fix?
Your child is not intentionally out to ruin your evening. Your child is not the problem, but experiencing one and needs your help. Just switching your thinking like that sometimes can help.
1. Go for the feelings not the story
Anxiety needs a home so whether it’s monsters under the bed or aliens in the toilet or ghosts in the mirror, the story is irrelevant (although we don’t tell our child that because that would make us seem incredibly heartless and disinterested!). So we tease out the feelings by listening and asking questions. We don’t have to say what our beliefs are about monsters, ghosts or aliens. You can simply ask questions and help your child work out what is going on for them. Something like:
- ‘That’s really scary for you and it feels big. Show me with your hands how big that feels.’
- ‘That sounds like a really big worry, what colour would that be?’
- ‘It doesn’t feel very nice when we are worried, where is it in your body? How is your body showing you that it is worried?’
2. Empathise + Validate
Empathy is the key to connecting and showing your child you are on their team. So to get yourself in that space, think about how you would feel when you are worried or scared because then you are able to be right there with your child cheer leading them on to sweet dreams. Smile, nod, make eye contact and hold them. Reassure and encourage. We want your child to feel understood and safe.
People with anxiety are afraid – they are looking for safety.
Validation is a way of reflecting back to your child how they are feeling. Here are some phrases that show empathy and validation in action:
- ‘Aaah I can see these horrible worries seem to want to keep you awake.’
- ‘I know you are trying to go to sleep and these worries make it hard – they don’t feel very nice.’
- ‘It sounds like you are really worried / scared about that. I don’t blame you, sometimes I worry about things too.’
- ‘This isn’t fun for you is it. I know how much you want to rest right now. Let’s take our time and find our way with this feeling.’
- ‘Feelings come and go so let’s help this one. I am here with you.’
3. Stick to the boundaries + bedtime rules
You can still have empathy and stick to your boundaries. So if you have read my blog post How to Stop Going Bananas at Bedtime you will know the importance of routine and sticking to that. You can encourage the emotion to flow freely but you do not move your boundary. You meet upset, crying, more worry with more empathy and validation. You may get more of it to start with as your child allows it to come up and out. Help them to breathe from their belly and breathe through it. Reassure them that they are safe.
4. Educate your child on how worries affect their bodies
Help your child understand what is happening to their body and make sense of their worries. A great book which I often recommend to clients is What to Do When You Worry Too Much. I also have a great book in my room about sleep which is actually for toddlers but children are naturally fascinated by how their bodies work and it gets them talking. This is the key to get them talking, to feel heard and understood.
5. Encourage your child to talk about uncomfortable feelings
Some children naturally resist what is uncomfortable and push it away. Smiley’s Sweet Dreams Bedtime Pack has some videos and worksheets to help with this. Some parents are uncomfortable around their child’s uncomfortable feelings. However, unexpressed feelings come back bigger or manifest in other unhealthy ways. I have two suggestions for this:
- Have allocated worry time with your child – but not at bedtime because you don’t want to be thinking about worries before you drift off to Sleepysville. So pick a time when your child can talk through their worries and explain that if worries come up outside of your slot that they park them in their minds until worry time.
- Make it a family habit where everybody posts their worries in a worry box.
I’m sure you don’t, but just in case here are Smiley suggestions on
What you must never ever say to an anxious child
I probably don’t need to tell you because if you are coming from a place of empathy and you have put yourself in your child’s shoes, then you will not want to make them feel worse than they already do. So let’s quickly rattle through these:
- Dismiss their feelings or their story because this feels very real to them. So things like ‘Don’t be silly or I think you are telling fibs’ tends to teach them to doubt their own feelings and thoughts.
- Tell them that you don’t believe them because again this is invalidating of their experience and just because it’s not your experience or you think they are making it up, please don’t do that.
- So if you think they are making it up, then this is also another way of them wanting to connect and spend more time with you. if you are new to connection and want to learn more about it, then start with this blog post
- Shout ‘Go to sleep now!’ or lose your temper. If they are anxious they are already afraid and that won’t help them relax or go to sleep
- Shame or punish them by making threats like ‘If you don’t go to sleep I will……’ because that implies they are intentionally not sleeping and that couldn’t be further from the truth. If you are frustrated because this is eating into your family time, then I’m guessing that your needs are asking to be taken care of (quite loudly).
- Try to talk them out of their story or talk them into sleep because this doesn’t address the root of the problem nor does it guide them towards problem-solving or finding a way to help themselves. They will naturally want to please you and so they may squish their anxiety down further.
Let’s look at how I helped one of my clients who was afraid of burglars
Earlier this year, Finlay’s Dad’s car was stolen off the driveway. Traumatised by the incident, 8 year old Finlay was unable to go to sleep by himself. His Mum said
“He was really petrified of burglars and wouldn’t go to sleep alone. It was very stressful and although we felt we’d tried everything; nothing worked. He was beside himself and so anxious.”
His Mum went onto say:
“From the moment Finlay met Lisa, they connected. Lisa understands kids really well and how to relate to them. Week by week we saw the progress. The sessions were really fun so Finlay was always happy to go and see Lisa – it was never a chore.”
The coaching was a mixture of drawing, talking and setting goals with rewards. I discovered that Finlay is a great footballer and scoring goals to win is important to him. He also enjoys reading Horrible Histories because they are about fighting soldiers who win. Armed with this vital information, Finlay and I set to work with a big A3 pad and a box of Sharpie pens.
Finlay drew a huge battle field. For the enemy he drew five big burglars (he didn’t really know how many burglars there were but this is how he saw them in his mind – they had very ugly scary faces). For Finlay’s army, he drew a combination of friends, family, footballers and wrestlers. In the middle of the battlefield was the ammo Finlay’s army required to win. He drew his iPad, night light, his breathing exercises, his positive thoughts, lots of happy memories, the picture of Mummy and Daddy that he started to keep by his bed, his Powersuit (actually they were Batman pyjamas but hey they had special powers don’t you know?!).
“You are not going to let those burglars beat you, are you?”
They are robbing you of your sleep!” I would gently tease. Motivated by winning and becoming big and brave like the soldiers in his picture and ‘Bingo!’ the desire to change appeared. Next, we set goals of how many nights Finlay would go to bed by himself. Week 5, Finlay turned up to coaching successfully having slept every night (except one) alone in his bed. Yey! The reward was watching his team, Manchester United play Arsenal at Old Trafford (nice reward – thank you Daddy!). His face was a picture and he said he felt happy. Mummy and Daddy were happy too. They had also invested in a burglar alarm to safeguard the house.
“We’ve seen such a huge transformation. He now sleeps alone which has made a huge difference to our family life. My husband and I can share a meal and spend time together again in the evenings. Finlay’s sleeping has improved, so has his behaviour, his school work, and his zest for life. He got Star of the Week at school today and for all of this, I can’t recommend Lisa enough!”
Smiley stuff to help bedtime worriers
If you want to start creating a smiley toolkit to help you feel good from the inside out, here are a few ways I can help you:
- My magical box of Smiley Thought Cards is a fun and easy way to train your brain to think positively.
- On the podcast, episode #2 The One with the Dark Dark night talks to children about their darkest fears.
- Take my free course ‘Grow Your Own Happiness & Shrink Your Worries’ and learn 4 simple steps to support children living with worries.
- My Smiley Sweet Dreams Bedtime Pack includes 11 guided relaxations and other tools for helping you empty your head of worries at night time.
- If you think your child has separation anxiety, you can access expert guidance & support from Smiley with your very own Coaching Success Blueprint – a detailed, customised report that gives you the answers you’re looking for.