The first thing to consider when bedtime fears occur is whether a child’s fear is related to a specific scary thought, or an accumulation of anxiety that arises throughout the day, and like coca cola bubbles, rises to the surface at night once the day is done. Night time fears can also be a manifestation of control so the ‘fear’ is secondary to the desire to make sure the parent succumbs to the child’s needs. Unfortunately a child will often find a specific fear to cover up the day time avoidances or difficulties, or to deny the control, so it can be hard to determine the root cause!
For anxiety there is a real need to create awareness of what problems are occurring during the day (usually lots of small challenges that are not conscious to the child) and to emphasize the coping and strengths the child has to manage them. Balancing what ‘might’ go wrong or be difficult, and what the realities are is difficult for all of us, and sometimes this needs counseling support to encourage the family and the child to investigate underlying, unacknowledged hardships and figure out ways to overcome them.
For control there is a need for parents to establish boundaries, share them with their children and work out the process of keeping these in place. This means looking at what is ‘right’ – the desired outcome, sometimes settling for what is ‘right enough’ and then putting plans in place to set consequences if those standards are not achieved. So, if you say in your bed I will be popping in every 10 minutes to check you are ok and offer reassuring and encouraging words, if you leave your bed I will not speak, simply return you to your room. Having a parent session to really consider the individual needs/standards within that home and many creative ways to police them can be useful.
Face specific fear and check reality - we want to offer less general reassurance and much more putting those fears on the table – so less ‘it will be ok’ and more ‘what exactly is the worst thing that could happen…and then what….’. Allowing the child to really have space to talk about them, draw them, act them out, and to encourage, within this, a sense of what is really likely to happen and what is imaginary happenings….becoming aware that the stories in our heads are much more damaging than the actual likelihood of those scary thoughts occurring.
Tapping into strengths and coping – Having the child face their own part in what could happen if the scary thought came true is vital. If a ‘baddie’ came could they scream or fight, would they be alone or quickly joined by parents running to the rescue? But it is important to envision many ways of coping – finding new endings that are more positive than the one creating the escalating fear.
Building courage – is not something only left until bed time. Every day presents many opportunities to talk about being brave, to set small challenges, to break down bigger problems into smaller bites so that the child can feel a sense of their own capability. Those who experience night time fears often feel very unsure during the day and tend to avoid, control or pull others in to support them – and learning new techniques to front up to difficulty is essential.
Knowing the language of courage – is something we don’t all have, especially children. Looking at the difference between reassurance ‘it will be ok’, and actual courage thoughts is useful – putting them on posters or clouds around the bed can help….. examples of courage thoughts are….
I am able to do many hard things, I have managed tough stuff before,
I can help myself by thinking about……or doing……
One thought that is useful to me in this situation is ……..
I have spent many nights safely in my bed. Every night I get to sleep eventually. I can cope with the discomfort of waiting, if I add patience.
Having specific rituals can help – even if they are a little ‘fantasy’ based, such as putting a magic rope around the bed, having a special power sword or a comfort object. Having items from the parent such as a t-shirt that smells of them, or a photo or talisman can be useful.
Elaborating brave moments by keeping a visual track of the small moments of success can help…eg a calendar in which you put thumbs up, sideways or down, or a star added to the wall each night that a small success is planned for and executed – I say small because it is better not to aim for total success but for moments of success….eg only calling out twice to parents instead of three times in the first fifteen minutes.
Planning for panic and learning to self sooth is something that we need to face. Once the parent leaves there might be ways for the child to check their own level of unease, or there might be things, in place of the parent, that helps, such as music, a story tape, a recorded message with the parent’s voice at intervals saying encouraging things, a baby monitor plugged in reverse so the child can hear the parent outside talking and going about their business.
Reducing support in stages can really help. Moving from lying with the child, to sitting nearby, to a chair at the door or in the corridor….then from 5 minute checks to 10 minute checks, etc.
Having consequences might be necessary….. such as ‘if you…..then…..’
If you stay in bed tomorrow I stay 5 minutes after story, if you get up I don’t stay once story is over and there will be tears.
If you try to settled or ten minutes alone I will return for five, if you don’t try to settled I simply refuse to come in
Of course these are not all the ways that we can help a child to settle.
And the issue can be more complex – I have tried to offer simple remedies above. If these don’t work - I have many more tools to try but these are some of the start points to thinking and planning for improved bedtimes.