Morgan Teachworth White, Cary M Hamilton
"I don't want to go to bed," Sound familiar?
Bedtime Anxiety- You are not alone
Is this scenario familiar? The evening is winding down, and the clock is ticking closer to bedtime. For you, this is a welcome transition. You’re looking forward to some of your own downtime. Conversely, your child seems to be ratcheting up in behavior. Maybe it starts around dinner time, with some extra demanding behavior in a younger child or withdrawal from the conversation in an older child. There could be some increased irritability, silliness, or power struggles around bathing. Then, when it’s time to get into bed, your child is crying in fear or is restless and can’t settle.
What’s a parent to do? You want your child to be comfortable and sleep well, but you don’t want to give in to demands or stalling behaviors. It can be especially challenging to feel empathetic when you’re tired yourself or if you have plans for the evening. Stress in the evenings and poor sleep can lead to struggles in the morning, making it feel like you’re stuck in a bad cycle. While anxiety around bedtime is not unusual, it is frustrating and concerning to witness in your child. Below are some thoughts on how you might be able to address bedtime anxiety so that you all get the rest you deserve.
Help Your Child Identify The Feeling:
For younger kids, “anxious,” “worried,” and “nervous” might be difficult emotions to understand. “Scared” can be a way that they express their anxiety, but sometimes even that does not feel like the right word. What they are scared of isn’t so clear to them. While older children may be more equipped to talk about their feelings, anxiety can present in a physical way and be hard to identify. If your child tells you, “I don’t know,” when you ask them what they’re feeling, it’s likely that they truly don’t know.
Stating your observations of their behavior can help them make the connection between how they look outside and what’s going on inside. “I notice that you have a lot of silly energy in your body” or “You’re laughing a lot, talking loud and fast, and you keep wiggling around” are good observations. Paired with a curious statement, this can build awareness. “I wonder if you’re nervous about something.” It might take time and repetition, but ideally, this will grow into your child being able to identify when they feel anxious.
Narrow Down the Cause If Possible:
Many times, anxiety is a “loose” feeling that seems to just bubble up from nowhere. It’s not always tied to a specific, conscious thought, and this can make it more overwhelming. Listing your observations may help here. “I notice that you seem anxious about going to sleep. I wonder if there’s something about sleeping that scares you.” It is most helpful to do this NOT at bedtime, pick a nuetral mid daytime to discuss bedtime anxiety.
The search for a cause can become playful. Imagine you and your child are detectives trying to solve the mystery together. Notice clues out loud as you see them. “Hm. I notice that right now, you’re asking a lot of questions about what I will do when you’re asleep. I wonder if you’re scared about being alone.” Patterns can be informative too. “I’ve noticed bedtime is harder for you when you’ve got a test the next day.” Encouraging them to offer up ideas and solutions increases a sense of empowerment and control over bedtime.
Allow Space for Anxiety:
Avoiding the discomfort of anxiety is natural. However, avoidance also feeds anxiety. When related to bedtime, this might look like putting off tasks that come up before going to sleep, even if that particular task is not something scary. It can also look like spending time on a screen to escape. If your child is one who talks about their anxiety, having an open discussion about it early in the evening can be helpful. Talk over the plan for the night, so they know what to expect. Include ways you will try to help them feel better and ask them what they think will help. Give them appropriate choices for how to make bedtime easier.
Talking about times you experienced anxiety at their age can help to normalize how your child is feeling. Bring up the physical feelings of anxiety and any connected thoughts you remember. Don’t focus so much on how things were ultimately resolved, but instead on what it was like being nervous and how you coped. If your child has overcome anxiety before, remind them of that time.
Encourage your child to talk, write, or draw out their anxiety. Set a timer for 3-5 minutes and encourage them to sit with that anxiety. Then, when the timer goes off, put away the anxiety until this time the next time by putting away the paper or changing the subject.
Focus on Connection:
Some bedtime anxiety is related to what the next day entails. Working on a plan to address these concerns can dispel the scary “unknowns” and validate feelings. Creating a plan shows your child that you are “with them” in this struggle and decreases the isolation that anxiety brings. Other ways to focus on connection include reading a story together, singing a song together, and saying prayers together. These activities should be soothing in nature and seen that way through the eyes of the child.
It’s also important to remind children that even when they are sleeping, you are still keeping them safe, thinking of them, and you still love them. For younger kids, going to sleep can feel like missing out or feel similar to separation anxiety. Reminding children that you will still be connected and here for them even while they sleep can be soothing. Strive to be consistent with your responses.
Routine For The Win:
Nighttime routines can be crucial to helping to ease anxiety. Routines provide structure, and structure can help children feel more in control. Doing the same tasks before bed can also cue the body to expect sleep and make falling asleep easier. If you have a nighttime routine and suddenly it seems to make sleep harder, then it might be time to add in some moments of connection.
These connection moments don’t have to last a long time or be complicated. The goal is to make your child feel less alone and to help provide an emotional cushion during transitions. If bathtime is a challenge, then after bath, spend some time together. Perhaps reading a book, listening to some music, trying out a new protective hairstyle, or just cuddling. A moment of connection can also happen during a challenging task, like making silly faces together when brushing your teeth.
Get silly when you start to feel the anger bubbling up. So many times I have felt beyond frustrated and wanted to scream. Instead, I got silly. I made faces, I fell to the floor dramatically, I talked in a silly voice, I did a dance move, it doesn't matter what it is- do soemthing silly, playful and different. My kids say today, you do the strangest things sometimes. Yes, Yes I do. I'm avoiding them seeing my own anger because I'm choosing to co-regulate and connect with them instead of yelling.
For those that have regular transitions that could disrupt bedtime e.g., separate households, vacations, parents on shift work, etc. These children need extra reassurance about feeling safe and secure in their own bed. Older children benefit from having a visual prompt or schedule think ages 7 and up. For littler kids, giving verbal reminders the night before or during breakfast, as a visual, often creates more anxiety due to their brains not having developed a sense of time yet. Expect that these regular transitions will always be difficult. It doesn't often get easier as children move through their developmental milestones; anxiety will wax and wane through time. Have patience as they are adapting to an ever changing world.
Dedicate Time to Regulation:
Before your child gets into bed, or even while in bed, but before you leave the room, spend some time focused on co-regulating. This could be going through a muscle relaxation exercise together or practicing deep breathing. Softly singing or humming can be regulating and connecting. If your child appreciates deep touch or pressure, then massaging hands, legs, or scalp can be soothing and a way to release physical tension. Weighted blankets or weighted stuffed animals are great additions for kids who are soothed by heavy input. These activities can be brief and part of a daily routine, so the expectation becomes that part of bedtime involves relaxation.
Tackling bedtime anxiety can seem daunting at first, but stick with it. It’s an opportunity for your child to learn more about how they handle stress and to experience a win over an uncomfortable emotion. Trial and error may be necessary, especially if the anxiety seems difficult to understand. If the anxiety continues to escalate or impacts their functioning during other times of the day, it might be time to seek help from a therapist. With some patience, listening, and empathy, you’ll be poised to help your child - and yourself - get some needed rest.
I will be doing a parenting course on sleep early next year. If you are interested in knowing more about it sign up here.
By Morgan Teachworth-White & Cary M. Hamilton