How to Help Children and Teens Through Anxiety at Bedtime

The relationship between anxiety and sleep is a complicated one. Sleep strengthens the brain against anxiety, but anxiety at bedtime stops sleep. Anxious thoughts will intrude at bedtime when the world is still, and bodies are still, and when young minds are meant to be still – but – a lack of sleep will make anxiety worse, which will make sleep the next night tougher, which will make anxiety worse.

The part of the brain most sensitive to a lack of sleep is the amygdala – the seat of anxiety. When the brain is tired, the amygdala will be more likely to read non-threats as threats and ready the body for fight or flight. This fuels the physical symptoms of anxiety, which will fuel anxious thoughts – ‘I feel like something bad is going to happen, so something bad must be going to happen.’ This will then fuel anxious behaviour – fight (aggression, anger) or flight (avoidance).

The intrusion from anxiety into sleep can magnify its intrusion everywhere else. Sleep is such an important part of the foundation that gives children what they need to be happy, healthy, and brave.

Anxiety at bedtime – why it makes sense.

Sleep is an extended separation from a parent. Even though you might only be down the hall, when your children close their eyes they will feel the distance. This can set the brain to ‘unsafe’. This is not a deficiency and it’s not a sign of breakage. It’s instinctive.

We are wired to feel safest when we are in the presence of our important people. This is part of our human heritage. Long ago, at the beginning of humans, our ancestors slept in groups as a way to stay safe. Leaving a child alone at night would have made them vulnerable to the environment or predators.

Fast forward thousands of years, and we are still wired to equate closeness with safety. The more anxious children are, the more that ‘closeness’ might need to be experienced as ‘physical presence’ for them to feel safe. The amygdala will remind them of their vulnerability every time they close their eyes. ‘What if something happens to your mum and/or dad while you’re asleep?’ ‘What if kidnappers break in?’ ‘What if the house burns down and nobody notices until it’s too late because everyone is sleeping?’

Anxiety at bedtime makes sense. It’s a strong, healthy brain working exactly as it should to keep them safe, but a little too much when there is no need. The good news is that we can change that.

But the fears might make no sense at all.

When fears feel too big, such as fear of losing a parent, or waking up to a burning home, children might turn this fear into something else, such as witches or monsters under the bed. It’s a way to give voice to the feelings and fears that are too big for words. The content of the fears might not be valid, but the feelings will always be – so that’s what we need to speak to.

I can see how scared you are. I would be scared too if I was thinking about monsters under the bed! You are completely safe. I would never leave you if I didn’t believe you are safe.’

First the feeling. Then the story – but the story won’t always make sense.

We humans are meaning-makers. We need to make sense of our feelings – to contain them – and we do this by putting a story to them. ‘I feel anxious/ angry/ sad/ scared because …’. First the feeling, then the story. Sometimes the story will be accurate. Sometimes it won’t be. A feeling with a far-fetched story will feel more contained than an ‘orphaned’ feeling that has no story or context at all.

Children might not always be aware of what their anxiety at bedtime is about. It might just feel like something bad is going to happen, or there might be a general feeling of unease. This will especially be the case if children have been through a trauma or if they’ve heard news of a trauma which feels overwhelming.

With such wide coverage of the bushfires that ravaged Australia, for example, most children would be aware that other children like them and families like theirs are hurting, scared, grieving, or have lost their loved people, pets or homes. This taps into their common humanity, and it is very normal for them to start thinking, ‘What if something happens to my family, or my pets, or my home? What if it happens while I’m sleeping? If this can happen to them, it can happen to me.’

When their fears are big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, or losing everything, children might put this into something else – monsters, witches, kidnappers. This is a sign that there is a feeling of anxiety that needs containing, holding and soothing.

When children talk about their anxiety at bedtime, the content of their fear (the story) might seem irrational, but the feeling will be valid. The feeling needs to be seen, held, contained, and soothed, so they can feel safe again.

‘I can see how scared you are. There are some scary things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. We are safe.’

If they have been through the trauma direction, the truth is that they have been through something awful, and they are safe.

‘We have been through something terrible and it’s been really scary. We are going to get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is so okay. I’m here and I’ve got you and we are safe. We can get through anything together. We are safe.’

Why does behaviour get so difficult at bedtime?

If children can’t put words to the feeling, the feeling will still push for action. If the feeling is anxiety, it will push for safety – through fight or flight. Anxiety at bedtime might look like anger, aggression, arguing, restlessness, defiance, tears, clinginess, ignoring you – so many things. It’s not bad behaviour – it’s anxiety. It’s a brain that feels unsafe because it’s away from the important big person who has been assigned the very important job of keeping this young person safe.

Sometimes children might become especially controlling at bedtime: ‘I want/ I won’t/ You can’t make me …’. Again, this isn’t about being difficult, but about trying to control the environment so they can feel safe. they might do this is by trying to take the lead – they might defy you, resist you, try to control you, or scream at you when things don’t go their way. Aside from the potential to bring the most loving, patient parent to their knees (we’ve all been there), there are two problems with this.

The first is that eaders never rest. As long as your child is taking the lead, they will not be able to relax and find the rest they need. The second problem is that children do not tend to make great leaders, especially when they are tired, and especially when they are trying to lead adults. The more we surrender the lead, or aggressively assert the lead, the more we feed the problem.

So what do we do?

Difficult behaviour at bedtime is not because children want to make your life hard, but because their brain has registered that things are about to get unsafe. An anxious brain won’t rest until it feels safe, and to feel safe it needs to feel connected and contained. We can facilitate this by taking the lead with as much warmth, strength and love as we can muster. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Set the boundary, but lovingly.

‘Love, it’s going to be bedtime in four more songs. Would you like some warm milk so you’re ready for bed when the songs finish?’

  • Validate their feelings, then give them in fantasy what they can’t have in reality.

‘I know – bedtimes can be so annoying. You want to keep playing, don’t you? I wish we didn’t have to sleep – ever. I wish we could stay up and play all night. I wish we could play soccer and go to the zoo and eat popcorn – all night – in our pyjamas! But right now, it’s bedtime my darling.

  • Try to get there first with an offer of connection to make things safe.

This will help to bring safety and lessen their need to chase it themselves.

‘It’s going to be bedtime in three more songs. Before you go to sleep, would you like two stories and a five minute back tickle, or one story, one mindfulness meditation and a five minute back tickle?’

This doesn’t mean they will immediately soften and do everything you ask. We’re building behaviour, and that takes time. When things turn ugly, it will be tempting to shout or get tough, and there will be times that, despite our most loving intentions, this will happen. We’re only human. For our children though (or any of us for that matter), tough-talking, separation (as in time out), or anything that shames them or disconnects them from us will only cause the brain to feel even more unsafe, which will make their challenging behaviour worse.

The more you can look at their behaviour with compassion and curiosity (and my goodness I know how hard that can be) the more you can give the brain exactly what it needs – safety. Then, your child will more likely be in a position for you to lead and guide him or her to feeling safe and eventually, to rest.

There will be a time to respond to the behaviour, but in the middle of the mess isn’t it. The time will come when the brain is open to our influence, which will happen when it feels safe and calm. To address their behaviour at any other time is useless. The brain can’t learn or take in information when it is in big emotion. Manage the incident first, then deal with the behaviour when things are calm. You’ll get less resistance and they’ll be more likely to listen to you on how to do things better next time.

How to manage anxiety at bedtime.

1. Shift the focus from the separation to their next connection with you.

Given that bedtime is a time of separation, tilt the focus to the next point of connection. Rather than focusing on the night, as in, ‘Night my darling, have a good sleep,’ (which might be perfect for children who don’t have anxiety), shift their focus to when they will next see you. This can be done by finding rituals to tie bedtime to morning.

• Invite them to choose a book at bedtime that you will read together in the morning.

• Let them know that as they fall asleep, you will be writing down something they did today that you especially loved and that you will read this together in the morning.

• Give them something of yours, and have them give something to you, then return them to each other in the morning. Smell is a really strong emotional trigger. If the smell is associated with safety, it will have an enormous capacity to trigger calm. Perhaps let them use your pillowcase for a while, or let them take your shirt to bed with them.

2. Rework the association – bedtime is rest.

The brain learns from experience, so the only way for the brain to learn that bedtime is safe, is to ‘reassociate’ bedtime with safety. If there has been a lot of anxiety around bedtime for a while, their bed and bedtime probably won’t feel safe. It will feel like the space that makes them stare at the ceiling with thoughts of everything that could go wrong, the space that gives them the wriggles, or a sick tummy, or where they miss you the most. ‘Re-learning’ can happen in little steps. Here’s how it works. First, have the conversation.

‘I know it feels scary for you in your own bed. I also know that you are completely safe there. I know that eventually you will be able to spend the whole night in your own bed, and that your room can feel cosy and safe and beautiful for you, but I know that isn’t how it feels at the moment. Let’s work towards that in little steps. We’ll do it together.

Let’s start with five minutes in your bed, then you can come in with me/us for the rest of the night. Then, when that feels okay enough, let’s try ten minutes. Then we’ll keep taking braver steps from there. I know you can do this, love. I know you can.’

You are still in control, but you’ve ‘got there first’ to make things feel safer. This will reduce their need to take the lead and behave in ways that are geared to take control (to make things feel safer), but which are exhausting for everyone.

If the reconnection with you is in their hands, they are more likely to relax because they won’t be worrying about when or if you’re coming back. This will slowly rework the association so their room, their bed, and bedtime start to feel calm – because they know they are about to be with you.

As your child feels okay with a level, work towards the separation being longer before coming in with you. If they are unwilling to move to the next stage, try this,

‘Okay, I can see it feels too big to go from 10 minutes to 20 minutes, so what would feel brave? What can you do that was more than last night?’

After a few nights (or weeks) move to a bigger separation but don’t go back to the level they have been on. Once the separation gets to, perhaps 20 minutes or 30 minutes, it’s likely that your young one will fall asleep on their own. This might take weeks or months, and that’s okay.

If there is a middle of the night waking, let them come in with you but in the morning celebrate that they were able to fall asleep in their own bed. They will probably then say, ‘Yep. But there’s no way I’m staying by myself for the whole night tonight.’ That’s okay. On the next night, stay at the same separation time as the night before, but don’t go backwards from there. Your child might fall asleep for the night, or might not – but they are getting closer to spending the night in their bed. Look for progress towards the goal, rather than the goal itself. One thing is for certain. They aren’t going to be wanting to spend every night in your bed when they are fifteen – but you won’t need to wait until then.

3. With you, then away, then back again.

Do your usual bedtime routine – story, cuddle – then let them know you will return in five minutes. When this feels okay, step up to ten minutes then work up from there.

This will work beautifully with some kids, but if your child is really anxious, and if they have already been spending a lot of nights in your bed, they might not be able to rest for fear you might not come back. This is where the previous strategy (reworking the association) can be more effective.

4. And if bad dreams are causing trouble …

If your child is worried about bad dreams, talk about the dreams they would like to have. Dreams and nightmares come from our own thoughts, feelings, and memories, so we have the capacity to influence them. Harvard researchers have found that the content of a dream can be changed by talking about that dream just before bedtime. Spend about ten minutes before bedtime talking about a story you and your child might dream about. The brain dreams in pictures, so talk a lot about the images – colours, size, what’s around. You might want to use the same story every night, tweaking or adding as you go along. The more you talk about it, the more vivid it will be, and the easier they can call on it when they need to.

And finally …

For children to thrive, the foundations need to be strong. Sleep is a vital part of this. When their world feels fragile, anxiety will often stir trouble at bedtime. This can be exhausting for everyone. It can bring the most loving parents to our knees. We need sleep as much as our children do, and if there are nights when it all gets too much, that’s okay. It won’t break them.

The more they can feel the connection with you at bedtime, the safer they will feel and the more they will be able to rest. It might take time for the safety they feel in your presence, to expand so they feel it in your absence too. You have a profound and wonderful capacity to ease their anxiety at bedtime and help them into calm, restful, restorative sleep. It’s okay if this takes time. The strengthening you are working on is a long-term one. Focus on the progress rather than the outcome, and know that little by little, the strengthening is happening.

2 Comments

ellacy

This is the most beautiful and profound article I have read about sleep anxiety and how to ease it. My children experience sleep anxiety when at their dad’s house and while they are older than the typical target age this article is written for, the foundational concepts are valid. I have gleaned ideas to advocate for their needs and to support them as they experience this growth. Thank you for sharing this information.

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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