What to Do When Kids Have Bedtime Fears
“Mommy! I had a bad dream!” my daughter yelled one night after being “asleep” for five minutes. As I returned to her room and sat with her, she told me she had a dream that the roof of the house had been ripped off by wind and she was sucked up to Jupiter, and I couldn’t get her back.
“Jupiter?” I said. “That would be scary and that is a really long way from home.” She nodded with her wide eyes darting around the room. I added, “Do you really think I couldn’t get you back from there?” She looked unsure. I said, “Nothing is strong enough to keep me from taking care of you: not wind or space travel to Jupiter.” She looked pleased but the irony of my statement hit me: neither Jupiter nor the wind would be strong enough to keep me away but my own need for both sleep and having to work at night certainly was.
For many parents who still have work left to do in the evening, or even those who just need a little quiet time to themselves, this nighttime neediness can be exhausting. How do we show up as generous and caring parents at night with so many competing needs? Some families are able to solve the issue by co-sleeping with their kids and while this practice happens all over the world, each family differs in their bedtime choices and capacities.
… monsters don’t appear because they have learned about monsters; rather, it is facing separation that makes the monsters appear in the first place.
THE SEPARATION MONSTER
Part of understanding sleep challenges in kids is making sense of why monsters and bad thoughts can appear at night. For many kids, monsters don’t appear because they have learned about monsters; rather, it is facing separation that makes the monsters appear in the first place. Monsters or other scary things are not uncommon in a two- to three-year-old as their brain develops with increasing consciousness and imagination, allowing for sophisticated stories and images. Monsters, like separation, pose the threat of taking you away from the people you want to be with. Nighttime is the biggest separation kids face because their unconscious, and indeed their separate bedroom, takes them away from their caretakers. In short, nighttime = separation = monsters.
When separation is present, a child can have a huge emotional response including clingy pursuit, frustration, and alarm. These emotions can fuel behaviour like excess bedtime energy, tears, tantrums, and refusing to listen to directions. As a child gets stirred up with emotion at night, their parents are often not far behind. But the dance of frustration set to the music of anxiety and inflamed emotion does not have to be the result of bedtime battles. There is a better way and it starts by reducing separation.
A common myth held about young children is that they have to practice at separating from us in order to grow up. This is false and in fact quite the opposite is true.
FROM MATURITY TO INDEPENDENCE
Separation is provocative for young kids because, as nature intends, they are not ready to take care of themselves and are highly dependent on adults. A child needs five to six years of strong, reliable, generous care given by an adult in order to grow into a separate self. At three years of age a child is often overhead as saying, “I do it myself” or “Me do”—a clear sign they are moving towards independence. By the time they are six years of age (with stable, healthy development), their brains are more suited for separation from caretakers and they are ready to head to school.
A common myth held about young children is that they must practice at separating from us in order to grow up. This is false, and in fact quite the opposite is true. Once they are more mature and independent, they will then naturally detach from us. It is nature that grows a child up and makes them want to do things for themselves. It is our job to figure out how to hold onto them until their maturity takes the lead and pushes them towards more separate functioning.
FROM SCARED TO SECURE
If separation is the problem, then attachment is the cure. It seems counterintuitive, but to help a child with separation at night we need to help them feel closer to us, not convince them to stay away. When a child can take a parent’s presence for granted, they won’t feel motivated to cling or chase the parent in desperation, nor be emotionally stirred up. What doesn’t work is underscoring separation with statements such as: “I am leaving in 5 minutes, you need to stay in your room,” or “I don’t want to see you until the morning.” There are many ways we can increase connection with young kids, and it starts by taking the lead in matters of attachment and relationship.
Take the lead in holding on
Understand that a child isn’t trying to give us a hard time at night but is having a hard time because of their immaturity and fear of being separate. Just as when they struggle with other challenges, it should help us find more generosity. It also helps to understand that while we can’t make a child sleep, we can pave a warm relational path to help them get there.
Accept that we are the ones responsible for steering a child through the challenges at night rather than blaming them for their “failure”; or unleashing frustration onto them instead of helping them with their emotions. When a child can rest in a parent’s care emotionally, then the monsters are less formidable, and nighttime can be a time they associate with contact and closeness.
Examine what we can change and what we cannot. Perhaps we need to ask for help, reduce responsibilities, or plan differently. The list of things that interfere with bedtime tranquility may be endless but what is important is that the adult seize the steering wheel in reducing separation at night and holding on to the child emotionally.
Bridge the nighttime divide
Prepare your child for the goodbyes and plan for the next hello. Holding on to a child doesn’t mean you can’t separate from them; it means that you offer them a bridge to the next point of contact. When a child focusses on your return rather than the goodbye, then the separation they feel is diminished. When you take the lead and plan for the next hello, then, despite the monsters, the child can rest easy that there will be a next hello and that you are planning for it. This might mean talking about what you are going to do the next day or the week ahead. It might involve laying out clothes for the morning or picking out a book to read together before breakfast.
Reassure and bridge the nighttime with check-ins or reminders for them to listen for your sounds as you clean the dishes or work on the computer. You might come and visit them and give them a paper heart that you put kisses in, or you might fluff up their pillow and fill it with “never-ending hugs.” Whatever you choose to do, the message should be that there is always some connection to be anticipated and the parent has the job of remembering it.
Listen generously to their stories
Engage with your child as evening settles in. There is something special about nighttime chats with a young child. As everything comes to a still point at the end of the day, their little minds start asking questions and their imagination comes to life. Some of the best conversations you can have with a young child are when they have your undivided attention and are moved to share their ideas and feelings with your undistracted self. You become their counsellor, their confidante, and their consultant in those priceless nighttime chats. Most importantly, you will become irreplaceable as you spend your time enthusiastically inviting their ideas in.
Regale your little ones with bedtime stories about when they were younger. They often like to hear funny stories of things they did, or what you did when you were a child. In sharing stories, we transmit more than just facts. We reveal our values and our thoughts about who we are and who they are to us.
Soon enough our children will grow and become more independent and need us less. We don’t need to hold it against a child that separation is so hard, that monsters appear, or that dreams are scary. Instead, take delight that we can bring such comfort. It is a testament to our relationship that our kids want to turn to us for contact and closeness. The secret to bedtimes is helping a child see that it’s not their job to strive to hold on to us but to take for granted that we won’t let go of them. When they take this to heart, they can better rest and separate into sleep.
If nightmares aren't the issue, here are some other reasons your kid might be going through a sleep regression.