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.

10 Comments

Amanda

So helpful thank you. My 12 year old suffers with anxiety and the every night thought of a loved one dying. I will try this methods to help.

Reply
Sally

This has been so helpful. My son is an older child who suffers with severe anxiety. It’s something that many people find hard to understand if you don’t have a child who suffers with anxiety. He is dealing with a lot of change in his life and bedtime has become a real battle ground for everyone. I feel that the tips and guidance here are helpful and achievable. I’m actually looking forward to bedtime so that I can start making him feel safe again! Thank you so much.

Reply
Anne

Just what our family to needed to hear and put into place right now. Thank you Karen for sharing not only your knowledge and insights about anxiety but some useful strategies and ways to have conversations.

Reply
sheri c

The most amazing article I’ve ever read. My daughter will be 13 this year and from the days she was both she’s never wanted to sleep . All these years dealing with the anxiety and never understanding it this way. This article could have never come at the most important time in our life . Thank you for shedding light on a new day with my child.

Reply
anne

thank you, this is the most helpful thing I’ve seen for what seems an unending situation!

Reply
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.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This