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How I’m Getting My Anxious Child to Sleep

Photograph by Twenty20

After 10 years of smugly listening as mom friends of mine complained of sleep issues with their kids, I’ve finally joined the ranks of moms whose kids don't want to go to sleep, at least not easily. That’s because my 10-year-old has recently become overcome with anxiety. Maybe it’s the expanded workload of fourth grade, or just life getting and feeling more complicated, but my little worrier has a serious case of sleep issues. That means, so do I.

What’s he scared of? We’re not sure, though we’re working hard to figure it out. The biggest result of this anxiety is that he now won’t go to sleep in a room by himself, even though up until now he always had. And getting him back on track is still a work in progress.

Through this process, I’ve made every mistake in the book and some that weren’t in the book, and I’ve now learned the hard way that the only way to get my anxious kid to sleep is stop trying to get him back on track and just listen to what he needs in the moment.

That means a lot of evenings I sit on an unforgiving hardwood floor, in the dark, while he falls asleep. Other nights, that means I sleep next to him because he once woke in the middle of the night and panicked in the dark. And last night, my son slept next to my husband while I slept in my son’s bed. Everyone got a good night sleep, even if they didn’t sleep where I wanted them to.

So, what are we doing to get him to sleep? Just about anything and everything. But at least we’re sleeping.

If you're also dealing with an anxious sleeper—no matter their age—here are some tips from someone who's been there:

Keep calm.

Kids with anxiety tend to panic because their feelings are bigger than their ability to deal with those feelings. That means tantrums, crazy thoughts and getting stuck in a loop. Raising your voice only makes anxious kids more anxious. Keep calm, even if it takes every inch of your resolve to do so. Your child’s anxiety will pass faster if they know they are safe with you.

Listen to what your cild is asking for and try to give it to them.

I spent so much time assuming my kid was angling for attention, I didn’t really listen to what he needed when he woke up in the night panicked or protested going to bed because he was scared. Now, when he’s up in the night worried, I simply ask him what he needs or offer a quick suggestion. But, what I don’t do is tell him to get over it and go back to bed. If he were capable of doing that, he would have done it himself just like he used to.

But what anxious kids really need is kindness and compassion, even at 2 a.m. when they wake you up because they’re scared of the dark.

Don’t get rigid just because your kid is.

Anxious kids tend to dig their heels in and get rigid. It feels like they’re being stubborn and are in need of discipline. But what anxious kids really need is kindness and compassion, even at 2 a.m. when they wake you up because they’re scared of the dark.

Don’t try to get back to normal.

Nobody, including parents, are at their best when they’re sleep deprived. So, instead of trying to keep up a sleep routine that is temporarily not working, focus on getting everyone in the family a good night’s sleep. Your child won’t always be this anxious and they will probably return to their old ways when whatever crisis is over. But, for now, there’s a new normal—and you'll just have to accept it.

Don’t punish an anxious child.

When my son first started having a hard time sleeping, I assumed he needed discipline, so I’d punish him by taking away TV or video games. This did nothing to get him back on track and only made him more anxious. Now, I reward him for trying hard, even if he had a rough night.

Don’t tell your child to try harder.

Anxious kids would love nothing more than to be less anxious and not their brains be so busy. Don’t assume your child could sleep better and just doesn’t want to. Your anxious child is trying as hard as he or she possibly can, even if it doesn’t look that way.

Get some help.

Chances are kids who have anxiety will have a lifetime of ebbs and flows. Get some help for your child and for your family. There are great resources online, as well as wonderful therapists who specialize in kids and anxiety.

Make a plan with your spouse and support each other on it.

Getting no sleep and dealing with anxious kids can put a strain on the best of marriages. Make a plan with your spouse on how to deal with bedtime and night wakings and support each other in the plan.

Talk to other parents.

Some of the best advice and sleep hacks I’ve received have been from other mom friends of mine. At the minimum, when we talk to other parents, we realize everyone is dealing with the same issues. You’ll feel less alone and you may get some fantastic tips for getting some sleep back to your household. I know I did.

Last but not least, do whatever you have to do get yourself and your family some sleep. If you have to co-sleep for a while, do it. If you have to sleep on your kid’s floor for a few nights, it won’t be forever. The point is, get some sleep. You deserve it and so does your little wide-eyed worrier.

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