How to Get Children to Sleep – Making Bedtimes Easier

How to Get Children to Sleep - Making Bedtimes Easier

If you’re struggling to get your little human to commit to some serious pillow time, you’re not alone. Few families get through childhood without some sort of disruption at bedtime. The good news is that as the parent or grown up who loves them, there are simple, powerful things you can do to help your little dreamers (and you!) find a more peaceful sleep. 

There are many reasons for the bedtime blues. Some kids will anticipate bad dreams or nightmares. Other kids will have a fear of the dark. Others will miss being away from you or feel unsafe on their own, and for some little powerhouses, there’s just too much to do to spend time sleeping. 

Your little dream jockeys will respond to different things in different ways. Kids are beautifully unique, so it might take some experimentation to find a strategy or a bedtime ritual that works best. Here are some ideas to keep in your bedtime toolkit.

How to Get Children to Sleep.

Leaving distressed kids alone at night. Something to think about …

In many other cultures (if not most) aside from the Western one, small children don’t sleep alone. Consider this from an evolutionary perspective. A long time ago when our ancestors were at the mercy of the environment, they lived, slept and ate together as a way to protect everyone in the tribe. Leaving a child alone at night would have surely made them vulnerable to being attacked, stolen or dinner.

Fast forward several thousand years and although there are no sabre tooth tigers licking their lips, we’re still wired to equate closeness with safety. 

That doesn’t mean it’s that way for every child. Some kids are perfectly fine with being tucked up tight and kissed goodnight and are happy to fall asleep on their own. For others, the tendency to be scared of potential threat remains. That’s the thing about evolution, the wiring stays long after its purpose has gone.

The capacity for reason and problem solving lies in the frontal lobes of the brain. This is the part that helps us to process raw emotions and it doesn’t start to mature until about 5-6 years old. That doesn’t mean that kids at that age will immediately feel okay with being left alone. We’re all works in progress and like any important building work, sometimes the brain runs to its own schedule. In fact, the frontal parts of the brain won’t be fully developed until about 24. Don’t worry though – that doesn’t mean your little non-sleepers will want to be sleeping in your bed up to then. Promise. It also doesn’t mean you can’t leave them alone. The idea is to not leave them distressed. Here are some ways to make bedtimes happier for everyone. 

  1. Give them some control.

    Kids are adults in training, and as part of that training they will experiment with their independence from you. You’ll say no, they’ll say yes. You’ll say the blue cup, they’ll say the yellow cup – so you’ll say ‘yep’ to the yellow, then they’ll want the blue – which will have since been claimed by a sibling who is protecting it as though it was an endangered species. If the struggle for independence happens at bedtime, may the force be with you. It’s no secret that the likelihood of the struggle seems to increase with your need to put a fullstop on the day. They are little, but they are mighty! As much as we want to support their flourishing independence, having this play out at bedtime rarely ends well for any adult. Kiddos seem to have that one stitched. Even if it’s an argument we win, the trail to adulthood is littered with exhausted, bleary-eyed grown-up resistance fighters who ‘won’ the bedtime battle. Eventually. Try to nip this by giving them other ways to take control – let them choose their pyjamas, the story, the toy that gets to travel with them by bed to dreamland. Give them control over the little things so they will (hopefully) have less need to fight you on the big one.

  2. One of THE most important things – a consistent bedtime.

    The research on this is conclusive – one of the most important things for taking the struggle out of bedtime is having a consistent bedtime routine.

    ‘It doesn’t matter if you are a parent of a young child in the United States, India or China, having a bedtime routine makes a difference.’ – Jodi Mindell, PhD, professor of psychology at Saint Joseph University and associate director of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

    A study that stretched across 14 countries study has found that a regular bedtime and a consistent nightly routine improves sleep in children. The more consistency in the routine, the greater the positive impact on sleep. Children with a regular bedtime routine have earlier bedtimes, fall asleep quicker, wake less during the night and sleep for longer. They also have less problems generally and fewer behaviour problems during the day. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, bedtime routines involve a set combination of happy, calming activities before bed. Activities might include a warm, peaceful bath, brushing teeth and reading a story. 

    ‘For each additional night that a family is able to institute a bedtime routine, and the younger that the routine is started, the better their child is likely to sleep … It’s like other healthy practices: Doing something just one day a week is good, doing it for three days a week is better, and doing it every day is best.’ – Jodi Mindell, PhD.

  3. Don’t be there while they fall asleep.

    There is so much research on this. If only it was easier said than done! Kids who fall asleep consistently with a parent in the room will be more likely to wake up during the night and sleep for less than six hours consecutively. Falling asleep with an adult beside them seems to interfere with the capacity to self-soothe and develop a sense of security, which may create a vulnerability to bad dreams. We all cycle through sleep during the night, but we tend to put ourselves back to sleep without waking up completely. If you’re there when they fall asleep, they’ll be more likely to look for you when they wake up and panic when you aren’t there. If leaving them at bedtime is feels as easy as nuclear physics (it’s not by the way – nuclear physics is way easier – nobody is brought to their knees by nuclear physics) here’s something to try …

  4. With them, then away, then back again.

    Stay with them until they settle – read a story, give them a cuddle, whatever your night-time ritual is. Let them know  that you will be leaving for 1 minute (or 2 – whatever you think they can handle) and then you’ll be back for five. Make sure you come back when you say you’re going to. They might get quite upset at first until they are able to trust that you’ll be back. It’s okay – you’ll be coming back so they won’t be left to fall asleep distressed. Keep doing this and when it feels right, extend the time you’re away and decrease the time you’re with them. Eventually, you’ll end up with something like two minutes with them, 10 minutes away. At this point, you’ll probably find that they’re sound asleep the first time you go back. Be patient though, this can take time. 

  5. Help them to relax.

    The more relaxed they are when you leave them, the more likely they’ll be to drift into a restful sleep. Breathing initiates the relaxation response, a process noted by Harvard cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson as a response that automatically soothes the nervous system. When triggered, the relaxation response instantly sends out neurochemicals that neutralise the fight or flight response. This will decrease blood pressure, lower heart rate, lower pulse rate, reduce the oxygen in the bloodstream and increase alpha brain waves, which are all associated with relaxation.

     Shhhh – it’s sleeping.

    Find a soft toy pet that’s fairly lifelike. If you can find one that’s sleeping, that’s perfect – but it’s not important. Make sure it’s something friendly that they would be happy to have up against them. At bedtime when they’re ready to settle, nestle the soft toy against them and explain that it’s fallen asleep and that they have to try to keep the it asleep by breathing and moving very gently so as not to wake it up. The feeling of something against them, as they slow their movements and their breathing will help them ease gently into sleep that’s dreamy, relaxed and beautiful.

    •   A little friend to help.

    Effective breathing comes from the belly, rather than the chest. A way to encourage this is by placing a soft toy on your child’s tummy and making sure it moves up and down. If their breathing is coming from their belly, the toy will move up and down, letting them know that their breathing is perfect. 

  6. Use a night light.

    If it makes them feel better about being on their own, do it – anything that helps them to feel safe.

  7. Or a fan.

    Night noises can be scary! Their imaginations are wonderfully rich and in their world, nothing is impossible. The downside is that a noise as benign as a cat outside the window can unpack thoughts of intruders, burglars, aliens – anything. A fan will bring a soothing, soft hum to the room and help to drown out any unexpected noises that might keep them awake.

  8. Correct any wrong information.

    Misinformation (e.g. from television) has been found to feed a high proportion of night-time fears in children. One study reported that  88.98% of children attribute their fears to negative information they’ve picked up along the way. Other studies have reported the figure to be less but what we know is that it features in there somewhere. Just be aware of what your child is watching (the news can be the most frightening thing on television because it’s real) and talk to them about anything they’re scared about. If they see something on TV and they’re worried about it happening to them, point out how their circumstances are different. Finding the differences will help to loosen the association between what they’ve seen and their own circumstances.

  9. Bed position.

    The most common nighttime fear for children is fear of intruders. The position of the bed in the room can help to maximise feelings of safety and security.

    Research that explored the preferred layout of a bedroom from an evolutionary perspective and has found that people prefer to sleep in a way that would theoretically maximise safety from potential intruders. There were no doors and windows way back when humans first came along, but there were caves and cave entrances.  The study found that:

    •   If the room has a door and no window, people will prefer to sleep in a bed that allows them to see the door without having to move their heads very much. Try to avoid the door being behind the bed. 

    •   If the bedroom has a window, people will prefer to sleep in a position that lets them to see the door and the window when their head is on the pillow.

    •   If it’s not possible to see both the door and the window at the same time, people will prefer to sleep so they can see the door.

    •   People prefer to sleep further away from the door (but still able to see the door). The assumption here is that the further they are away from the door, the more time they have to keep themselves safe from an intruder.

If bad dreams or nightmares are causing the trouble.

Night-time fears are extremely common for children, with one study reporting that 73.3% of children aged 4-12 are affected. About a quarter of kids will have at least one nightmare every week. One of the most common themes is the violation of their personal safety – kidnappers or burglars often have a starring role in bad dreams. Other common themes for kids are separation from people they care about, loss of loved ones, imaginary creatures, and being chased by a scary person or animal. 

  1. Explain where bad dreams come from.

    Things are scariest when we don’t understand them. Kids can do amazing things with the right information, and explaining the physiology behind their bad dreams can go a long way towards empowering them. Here is an example of the words to use what you chat with them about it. It doesn’t all have to all happen in one conversation. Nobody knows your kids better than you, so adapt it to suit. 

    ‘When you go to sleep, your brain stays switched on and keeps working hard to look after you. Here are some of the things it does:∗ it puts what you’ve learnt into your memory;∗ it works through the things you’ve been taught to make sure you understand them;∗ it sorts through your memories, or the things that have happened during the day to help you feel okay about them. 

    Dreaming is the way your brain sorts through your feelings to make sense of things for you. Your brain does this while you’re sleeping because during the day your brain is way too busy doing other things. 

    You dream in pictures because the words part of your brain takes a little nap (it works so hard during the day!) The other part of your brain that takes a little rest is the ‘sensible’ part that tells you what’s possible or impossible, sensible or completely ridiculous. When this part of your brain is asleep, anything is possible! There are absolutely no limits which is why you can dream of flying to the top of the world in your very own jet – rainbow coloured of course, with an indoor swimming pool, and your very own toy shop and rock stars who tell you funny jokes while they clean your room. There’s just nothing in the way to say, ‘Sheesh! Don’t be silly! That would never happen.’

    Sometimes the information your brain has to sort through is stressful, confusing or scary and it might turn this information into a nightmare. Your brain doesn’t do this to upset you – it wants to look after you. Remember, it only has pictures to work with because the words part f your brain is asleep, and there’s nothing to tell it to calm down with the crazy stuff, because the sensible part of your brain is also taking a little break.

    This is why it’s so important to talk to a parent or someone who cares about you about things that are upsetting or confusing for you. By doing this, your brain will have less to sort through at night-time, so there will be less chance of things getting turned into nightmares. Grown-ups are very good at listening. They practically invented it. They can help you to make sense of things and they’ll never think anything you have to say is silly or not important. Grown-ups were kids too once, so they’re very experienced at kid stuff (although kids will always be the experts). 

    Sorting through your feelings is just one reason people get nightmares. You might also get nightmares when you are sick or if you’ve heard or seen something scary on television, in a book or on the internet. 

    It’s important to understand that the panicked feeling you get when you wake up from a bad dream isn’t because something scary is going to happen. There’s a good reason for feeling scared after a nightmare and it’s because of a part of your brain called the amygdala. When people dream, the amygdala is really firing. 

    The amygdala is an almond-shaped part of your brain and its job is to keep you safe by letting you know that there might be trouble. It’s kind of like your own fierce warrior, there to protect you. The amygdala does a brilliant job of keeping you safe, but sometimes it will send out a warning when there’s absolutely nothing to be scared of. It’s a do-er not a thinker, so it’s very good at warning you, but not very good at thinking about whether or not you actually need a warning. This is why you feel scared when you wake up from a nightmare. 

    When you feel scared, it will help to breathe deeply (because that settles down your amygdala), have a cuddle with someone who loves you and that scared feeling will soon go away. It can be hard to remember to do strong, steady breathing when you feel so scared, but don’t worry because I’ll be there to remind you. We’re a great team you and I and we’re going to sort these bad dreams out.

  2. Choose your own adventure … or ending.

    Dreams and nightmares come from their own thoughts, feelings and memories and because of this, we can change them if we want to. Harvard researchers  have found that by practicing a different ending to the dream just before bedtime, the content of the dream during sleep can be changed. Spend about 10 minutes talking to your child about an alternative ending for their dream. Because the dreaming brain uses pictures, rather than words, talk to them a lot about the imagery – colours, size, images. It the bad dreams change, or if they can’t remember them have an ending that would be always safe – finding you and being scooped up into your arms, safe and sound. If the nightmare is a recurring one, practice the alternative dream ending each day by talking about it to build up its strength and vividness and the ease with which your sleeping child can call on it when they need to.

  3. Help them make sense of their scary feelings.

    If bad dreams leave your small human with big feelings, it’s a sign that the right hemisphere of the brain is dominating and disconnecting a little from the left. The memory of the feeling that’s leftover from a scary dream can be enough to cause trouble at bedtime. Here’s what happens … the left part of the brain uses language to make sense of experiences. It uses words to put the experience into logical sequences – this happened, then this happened, then this happened. While the left brain is ‘this is what happened‘, the right is ‘and this is what it means for me‘. It’s more dominant in images (which are the heartland of dreams) and feelings. When the right is dominant, and disconnected from the left, feelings might feel overwhelming. Things will always run smoother when there is a strong connection between the right and the left, so both sides of the brain can drive behaviour. The left loves language, so to help your child make sense of their big feelings, recruit the left side of their brain by putting word to their experience:

    ∗ First, acknowledge how scary bad dreams can be. This will help your child know that you get it … ‘Bad dreams can feel awful can’t they. I feel scared sometimes when I have bad dreams too.’

    Next – if your child is okay with it – ask him or her to describe the dream. Don’t force them though. If they want to talk to you about it, awesome – let them go for it. Otherwise, let it go.

    Confirm that your child understands that it’s a dream and it can’t hurt them – even though in the dream it feels like it can. 

  4. They’re giving you a little peek into their world.

    All dreams are fuelled by your little person’s own thoughts and feelings. Exploring the dream with them, or listening to them while they describe it, can reveal wonderful insight to your child, and about your child, and give them a sense of control. Look for clues that might be telltale signs of their fears and vulnerabilities. This isn’t about interpreting their dreams, but about looking for feelings or issues that might be happening in real life and finding expression through their dreams.

  5. Every dream warrior needs their special powerful things.

    Kids are brilliant at using the line between reality and fantasy as a jump rope. This means that they have great capacity to take things from their waking world into their dreams. Here’s how that works:

    If they could take anything into their bad dream, what would it be? Something to fight off the baddies or dissolve them? Dissolver dust (called ‘glitter’ for short), might be just the trick. Maybe a monster trap? Something that was used in our home off and on for almost a decade was monster spray (see recipe and FAQs below). Perhaps an invisibility cloak (a small sheet) to hide from the baddies? Perhaps they need you (your photo under their pillow) or a magical fortress (ask them to draw it).

    Talk to them about how they will use their special ‘thing’. How does it make them feel? Strong? Safe? Powerful? Magical? This will help to strengthen the thought, experience and emotion to influence the content of their dream.

    Have them put their special thing under their pillow (if it’s safe), on their bedside table, or anywhere close by.

    ∗ Prime them before they go to sleep, by asking them to imagine themselves taking their special thing into the dream and using it.

  6. Dream Monster Spray (or Shark Spray, or Ninja spray, or alien spray, or whatever is pushing its way into their dreams).

    The idea of this is to use something build their feelings of safety. Clever, inquisitive monster slayers have been known to ask their share of questions, so here are some FAQ’s … just in case.

•  Does this mean monsters are real?

Nope. No way. Absolutely not. Promise. There are no monsters but sometimes your mind can make them up. This will help settle your mind down and stop those scary things coming into your dreams.

•  Where do you get it from?

You make it yourself. Here’s how. Get yourself a spray bottle and fill it about three-quarters with warm water. Now, add a few drops of lavender (or any other essential oil that’s known to be lovely (as in relaxing)). That’s it. Done. Easy as that.

•  What do you do with it?

Spray it around your room. You don’t want to go nuts with it. Or maybe you do. But about 5 sprays should do it.

•  That seems too simple. How do you know it works?

Because the scientists said so – they’ve done heaps of research into how your brain works. Have you ever met a scientist who didn’t know what they were talking about? Nope. Me neither. 

•  How does it work?

Two ways. First, it relaxes your brain – and a relaxed brain is a happy brain, which makes it more able to dream happy dreams. Second, dream monsters hate lavender. They can’t stand it actually. It makes them shrink down to nothing, but first it makes them (and little monster slayers) very sleepy. Dream monsters don’t like anything that smells nice but lavender is the one they hate the most. 

•  Will it give me muscles?

What? No. That’s what green peas and bananas are for. But don’t eat them together – that’s just gross.

•  Will it make my hair shiny?

No. But sleep will. 

•  Do I still have to have a bath?

Wait. What? Yes of course you do. 

•  Why?

Because dream monsters hate anything that smells nice but they hate nice-smelling humans most of all.

•  What if I think of another important question?

Just ask a grown-up who loves you. They tend to know important stuff. They’re good like that. Otherwise they will find a scientist to ask.

And finally …

It’s not unusual for all kids to struggle with bedtime at different times throughout their childhood. There’s no one-size fits all and there’s no quick fix to taking the angst out of difficult bedtimes. With time, persistence and a well-stocked toolbox with proven strategies, your little humans – and you – can find the way to peaceful, struggle-free sleeps in no time.

16 Comments

Sabrina A

I loved that you emphasized the importance of having a more consistent sleep routine and that having a set bedtime routine can help them wind down and have fewer problems in the day. My 3-year-old granddaughter has a very difficult time falling asleep at night and sometimes doesn’t get to bed until 2 a.m. When I go over to my daughter’s house tomorrow, I will suggest that they try starting a set bedtime routine to help relax and get her adjusted.

Reply
Jen

Both of my 12 year old twins can’t get to sleep without me being in the room. I’d like to try the 1 minute away, 5 there technique but wasn’t sure if they ate still awake at the end of the 5 do you leave for 1 again and keep cycling until they go off?

Reply
Lisa Frommer

I was plagued with fear of sleeping alone for many many years! My parents still wouldn’t let me sleep with my sister. I was so tired at school it was counterproductive to say the least and I suffered every single night! I still cannot sleep alone and I am 58 years old! Sometimes all the therapy in the world doesn’t fix this anxiety issue!
Lisa

Reply
Asi Kaufman

From a book called parenting for primates by Harriet J Smith. as of my recollection.
Gorillas would put their infants to sleep with them in thier own nest, which they build anew daily at a different spot at the forest. At some point when they grow up a bit, and when they have more control and can go up and down the tree; they will build them their own little nest. They will still let them fall asleep with them at their nest, and when they fall asleep they take them and put their in their own little nest, no anxieties, no fights, nada. After awhile the babies will simply prefer to go to sleep on at their own nest. Obviously their nest is not that afar. In a few million years, while cpntinue to evolve rather than devolve, we might gain their wisdom and ongelegent. We create to situation for anxiety and then get too creative on how to solve them. Good night to all our fellow humane beings. (thinking of which, its not in the book, im guessing the babies are watching their parents building their nests, and some point down the forset path, they start to help, bringing a small branch here, and etc. Which i would then think if preoaring the room and orgenizing the bed together to be a pleasent cozy place with ? and have the kid lead the way on that, or be very receptive to his little quirks and let him set the stage. Also reviewing the dates event and clear them, the stressfull ones are what they take with them to their sleep, not talking about it before doesn’t add a thing. And touch and massage until they get relaxed, and anxieties leave, you know give them their grooming session, im sure they wouldn’t mind to get some more of it, and let them wane into peaceful sleepiness!

Reply
Sophie

Hello,
Great article thank you for sharing. It has made me think about the lay out of our daughter’s bedroom.

Do you have any tips on how to settle a 17 month old that wakes in the middle of the night unsettled and becomes very distressed if I try to lay her back in her cot. It takes 2-4 hours of holding her, eventually exhaustion kicks in and she falls asleep enough for me to be able to place her back in her cot.

She is a self settler at night. We follow the same bed time ritual each night. The problem is if she wakes then I am up anywhere between 2-4 hours trying to settle her back to sleep.

We have tried co-sleeping but she isn’t a fan of it.

Thanks

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

It sounds as though your little one is in a habit of waking up being soothed in a certain way. There is no easy way to break this habit – patience, consistency and perseverance, but it can be done. It’s about gradually getting her used to putting herself back to sleep when she wakes up at night. Start with holding her for ten minutes, putting her down for five, then repeat that until gradually the time you hold her is less and the time she is on her own is more. I’m not a fan of letting them cry themselves to sleep. This is a way to help them learn how to self-soothe, while still letting them know that they aren’t on their own. You might want to start by staying in the room during the time you put her down. Be patient. She might get worse for a little while before she gets better, but this is completely normal – when something that used to work stops working, we’ll all tend to do more of what used to work until we learn that it really doesn’t work any more.

Try not to be there when she falls asleep. As much as this is something you do out of great love, it can also undermine her ability to learn how to self-soothe. Don’t lose heart if things don’t change quickly. Keep going and be consistent – it can take anywhere from 3-5 weeks to form a new habit (and lose an old one).

Reply
Sara

Hi Karen,
Your insightful article arrived in my inbox with perfect timing, which is often the case with articles from Heysigmund! My hubby and I have an ongoing conversation about this topic and while we’ve tried a few of your suggestions already, I now have a few more that I believe can be really effective with both my highly sensitive 6 year old and 5 year old. One of our biggest challenges is giving them the opportunity to fall asleep on their own. The boys share a room and when we stick to our bedtime routine of bath, brush teeth, story, quick cuddle and leave the room, they often keep each other up. Of cours, this leads to frustration and resorting to non productive behaviors in all 4 of us. I love the back in 5 minute suggestion and to a degree we have tried this although still a challenge to keep them calm and in their beds before we get back. Any other suggestions? Maybe just consistency, calm patience and more calm patience will be answer….?
Thank you so much for what you do, both my husband and I find Heysigmund so incredibly helpful!

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Hi Sara – so pleased you’re finding the articles here helpful! Two little ones in a room can definitely make bedtimes challenging. Sounds like they have fun winding each other up a little. Persistence will be key for this one. The only other thing I can suggest is to try some relaxation exercises before hand. (Maybe progressive muscle relaxation?). On the plus side, the fun they have before bedtime will be some of their fondest memories one day. Be patient and persistent and keep with your routine – it sounds like a lovely one.

Reply
L

Hi. I just read the article about getting kids to bed. My daughter is 14 next month. She has generalised anxiety disorder and some OCD. She is seeing a lovely psychologist and takes some Lovan. It is three years since she began having panic attacks. These are now pretty much under control. She has a range of habits, the most frustrating of which is spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom at night so that bedtimes blow out by anything from ten minutes to an hour and a half. During this time she is most likely splitting her hair or peeling skin from her feet. No amount of cajoling will hurry her up. I have to threaten her with zero screen time the following day to have any effect but more often than not she just forfeits it anyway. It is an ongoing issue that we discuss with her psych but it is very stressful for my husband and I as well as going against one of the important needs of a child with anxiety – a good bedtime routine and plenty of sleep. I understand her to some extent as I have similar traits myself, though not as out of control. However, I will continue a habit even if I know it will make me go to bed too late, make me tired the next day, isn’t good role modelling. I have a long history of lack of discipline and poor time management and I see my daughter walking the same path. I see the psych on a regular basis as well. I am quite intelligent and insightful, yet the urge to continue a habit is so strong, despite knowing the negative outcomes. I would love to help my daughter get control of this while she is young. We have discussed different methods of getting her to bed on time but so far nothing is working unless we are constantly on her case until she gets to bed. If she wakes in the night she is likely to continue with a habit for perhaps two hours. If you have any ideas around these issues or can point me to posts you have already done, I would be most grateful. Thank you.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

It’s great that you have a psych you can work with. Keep working with her on this. The reason your daughter is getting stuck with her habits is because they are the behaviours that help to keep her anxiety at bay. The reason the consequences you’re putting in place usually don’t work is because those consequences aren’t worse than the anxiety or her experience when she isn’t using her habits to control them. It’s also not something she is doing to be defiant or naughty. For her, it’s a way to feel safe. When she does it, it activates the feel-good chemicals that surge when we get something we want. This is why it will be difficult for her just to stop it without replacing it with something else. The idea is to find something that is healthier for her than what she is doing now.

There is a ton of research that shows that mindfulness can help with anxiety. It changes the structure and function of the brain to strengthen against anxiety. Something to try might be a mindfulness practice before bed. Here is an article that explains that https://www.heysigmund.com/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness/. Smiling Minds have a brilliant app that plays different mindfulness exercises for different ages. Here is the link for you to have a look at http://www.smilingmind.com.au/smiling-mind-app/. Headspace also have one that is popular but Smiling Minds is the one I’m familiar with. Smiling Minds is free. I’m not sure about Headspace but here is the link if you want to take a look at that one too https://www.headspace.com/. This might be a way to replace the habit with a healthier one. It might be something to explore with your psych if you haven’t already.

Reply
Richard Andrew

So much great info here Karen. One observation I’d offer, somewhat related, and specifically to toddlers … I find it curious that western humans, it would seem, are the only mammals / large-brained animals who (generally) don’t sleep with/near their young. You don’t see a mother dog say to her pup “No baby-Rover, you sleep alone over there and I’ll sleep over here”. Nor I suspect do lions, bears, rabbits, whales, kangaroos, etc. Only western humans. It’s a curiosity. Along with the uproar a statement like this usually brings.

Reply
Jonas

This might sound a bit odd, but I have taken a cue from the world of Tibetan Buddhism and explained to my four year old son that we can befriend monsters and make allies of them by making real or imaginary offerings to them at which point they become our protectors. I think framing it this way shifts from a fight/flight dynamic (security through aggression) to a psychic state marked by empathy, trust, generosity and courage, which I suspect is bit more conducive for sleep. Of course I also let him know that there are no monsters, but those reassurances seem less intuitively appealing than the protector principle.

As a Buddhist household we have a small shrine to Mahakala to which we make tea offerings, making the whole thing somewhat more concrete and localized. In spite of the ferocious image of Mahakala, he seems to have taken to the idea, refers to Mahakala as “my friend,” and hasn’t had much of an issue with night fears.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
.
.
.
#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
.
.
#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This