I need a bandaid.
I need one more kiss.
I’m not tired.
This is how it would go with 9 year old Hardy*, ever since school ended. His parents were initially compassionate. Then annoyed. Eventually, they were sleep deprived and had lost much of their patience.
So goes the story for many parents of anxious kids. It start with small with pushing the boundaries of bedtime. Then it evolves into a power struggle of wills, sprinkled with tears and massive frustrations.
How does bedtime get out of hand for anxious kids?
Previously, your child may have been a good sleeper. Any issues may have been easily managed. Then, bedtime troubles becomes more regular and you and your child are losing chunks of time to bedtime. You feel duped, thinking your kid just wants to stay up late, and decide to be firmer. However, with an anxious child the issue was never really bedtime. This is where the power struggle begins.
Why bedtime and anxiety?
Bedtime is a quiet time where your child’s thoughts can wander to their worries and concerns. In the quiet darkness of their room thoughts and feelings creep in. They may worry about…
the test they have tomorrow…
the teacher who yells too much…
the bossy playmate…
their old house…
when mommy and daddy used to live together…
and on and on…
Bedtime is a time where parents intentionally separate from kids to allow them to sleep. This separation can spark feeling of loneliness. Has your child recently lost a good friend to a move? It can spark feelings of abandonment. Has your child’s teacher gone on maternity leave?
Why is your kid fighting you?
Children can have a hard time articulating their fears and frustrations. From an early age your child has learned the behaviors that draw you close to them for comfort and security. Many of these behaviors involve appearing needy, distressed, and oppositional.
Many times devolving bedtime routines follow a similar schedule. Your child starts off as needy. I need a bandaid. I need some water. Next, the routine evolves to include distress. Daddy, I need one more kiss. Mommy, pleassseee cuddle with me. Eventually, it’s war. Don’t go!! This may be followed frequently getting up out of bed and even tantruming
What should I do if my child is anxious?
Don’t demonize the behavior
Your child is not being bad, defiant or just wanting their way. They are getting your attention in the most effective way they know. (And darn it, it’s effective!) Yelling and engaging in a power struggle will only make it worse, both in behavior and for their self-esteem.
If you are sleep deprived, acknowledge that you might be short tempered and grumpy. Provide yourself with the extra space to accept that some of your parenting might not have been your best. Try to enter a space where you can be compassionate to both yourself and your child.
Start a list in your head of your child’s possible worries. Speak to important people in your child’s life. Most of all, ask your child about possible concerns they might have. Hardy’s parents realized that this all started to happen when his dad started his new job. Suddenly, he was missing a few dinners per week and occasionally had to travel overnight.
Listen and validate
Hear your child’s concerns as real. Empathize with their experience. This validation has to include your undivided and complete attention. Hardy missed his dad and their nighttime ritual of looking at Pokemon cards together and talking about kids at school. Things that may seem trivial to adults can be monumental to children.
Address your child’s concerns and come up with a new bedtime routine
Hardy’s parents made a calendar with his dad’s schedule so Hardy would know when dad would be at work. This made his dad’s schedule more predictable. His dad called to wish his “mature boy” a good night and reminded him of their talks about the importance that everyone in the family get a good night sleep. Soon after, Hardy stopped screaming for help and comfort at night.
Bedtime should be a time of peace for your child. If you find that tensions are running high well past bedtime step back, take stock and evaluate the situation. Acknowledge, validate and address any concerns or anxieties your child has. Once you have begun to address the actual issue, consider a bedtime routine behavior chart to help get things back on track quickly!
Do you need more support with bedtime battles or helping your child with their anxiety?
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Brave Minds Psychological Services helps children, teens and families overcome severe anxiety, stress, and painful experiences. We specialize in developing brave minded youth that can move forward despite fears and significant challenges.
*Hardy does not reflect a particular person or family but rather an example a compilation of experiences families have.