Help! My Child is Afraid to Go to Sleep at Night

My Child is afraid to go to sleep at night. What can I do to help him?

MOLLY: We received this question from a parent whose 3-year-old son became frightened during a recent thunderstorm. He asked the parent if he would stay with him in his room, but the parent, not wanting to start that habit instead told the child to be a big boy and try to sleep. Now the child is afraid to go to sleep at night, and the parent doesn’t know what to do. What do you think she can do?

MOM: Well, I would handle it somewhat differently. While I understand that she was trying to appeal to the more “grown up” side of the child, actually I think in this instance it wasn’t helpful. I think it would have been more helpful to lie down with the child for a few minutes and reassure him.  That way he gets to feel comforted. At three, he’s scared of the violence of the storm. As an adult, just to hold his hand and lie down with him for a few moments will help him recalibrate internally and settle his anxiety down. Then he knows that somebody is there for him; there’s somebody between him and the storm, so to speak. This is a big part of giving reassurance to a child.

MOLLY: That he knows that you’re there for him?

MOM: Right, and that he’s protected. That he doesn’t have to face this violent storm alone –I’ll use that as a metaphor, too.

MOLLY: From not doing that, not giving him reassurance in the storm, what do you think happened? Why is the child now having trouble sleeping even when there is not a thunderstorm?

MOM: I think it caused him some anxiety which is translating into scared to sleep at night. This is obviously a change of behavior for the child and the fearful incident has become generalized to other situations.

MOLLY: What can the Mom do now? How can she fix it?

MOM: Once she recognizes that that might not have been the best way to handle it, she can address it directly with the child. If she doesn’t address it with him, the anxiety can take on a life of its own and can become a very long term problem that, after a while, no one remembers where it came from. In therapy, we talk about this type of anxiety as developing a life of its own, and then it becomes much more difficult to address.

For this mom, she might say something during the daytime and not necessarily at night. She want’s to engage him when he’s fully functioning emotionally and not tired or hungry or about to go to bed.

She might say, “You know, I’ve been thinking about what happened the other night. Do you remember what happened during that terrible storm that we had? It was raining really loudly and there was a lot of thunder and lightening. You asked me to lie down with you and I said, oh be a big boy, you can manage this. Do you remember that? You know, I’ve thought about it and that wasn’t very nice of me not to stay with you for a bit while you were scared.”

Then she can say, “I’m really sorry that I didn’t stay with you during the thunderstorm, but the next time something scary happens, you let me know and I promise I’ll be there for you.”

It’s not that hard to do, and the child then feels understood.

MOLLY: And that will solve the problem?

MOM: Usually, but the kid will most likely test her out. Something will come up soon, it’s almost guaranteed. He’ll want to know that Mom’s response is for real.

MOLLY: She’ll have to make sure she follows through.

MOM: Yes, as a parent you have to make sure you do something if you say you will. If you don’t do it after saying that you will do it, there will be problems.

MOLLY: Then he might have trouble trusting you? It’s hard to go back to a place of trust at that point.

MOM: The development of trust is so important, but you can go back. You can go back and “clean it up” so to speak.

MOLLY: So as a parent, you might make these mistakes, but you can go back and change things in your relationship with your child?

MOM: Right. The closer to the time of the actual event, the better. The rule of thumb is: if you can respond to the child’s need, then that allows him to move on from there. An unresolved need can result in a child getting stuck in that stage of development.

Comment below if you’ve had success using other strategies to help your child deal with their fears at bedtime. Or Contact Us if you have a parenting question you’d like to see addressed.

ding 3 comments on “Help! My Child is Afraid to Go to Sleep at Night

  1. We’ve had similar issues with storms, shadows, etc, and have always let the kids crawl into bed with us. At first I was worried about developing bad habits but as it turned out, they just wanted comfort in those moments and didn’t turn it into a nightly event. As a parent, you learn to weed out the times when they are actually in need vs. times when they just don’t want to go to bed. We always try to err on the side of caution but a child’s tummy can only hurt so many nights in a row before you realize they just want to watch hockey with Daddy ;D

  2. I giggled out loud when I read about your comment about “wanting to watch hockey with Daddy”. We’ve had that same dilemma…what’s real and what’s “I’m hungry” so I can avoid going to bed. I guess once it starts becoming a habit than you have your answer and have to do figure out what to do about it!

  3. It was nice to read such a sharing and contributing conversation between a mother and child, and not merely good advice for parents but great example of how parents and children can relate as they grow older. Thanks!
    I have one comment to add, and that is our young children are “reading” our parental concerns and non-concerns all the time. Just being with a child who is afraid, and letting them experience you as you are experiencing a thunder storm (or a stranger, a new environment, etc.) gives them a way to tell whether something is safe or not and how to relate to it. Talking about a thunderstorm as “scary” probably is not as valuable as being physically close and talking together about having been scared or being scared during a thunderstorm. I think it’s good for our children to “see” how to deal with things when they are afraid, and they can learn empowering ways to do that from us at many levels. No teaching required, just honest sharing and comforting.

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