My 11-year-old is too anxious to sleep by himself
He can’t cope without one of us staying with him all night and gets distressed even if we just leave to go to the bathroom
Nighttime is frequently a time of peak anxiety for children and as a result, lots of children find it hard to fall asleep alone. Photograph: iStock
Question: We have an only child who is nearly 11. He is an anxious child by nature. We never had a good sleep routine with our son. Other than as a baby he never was able to manage to stay or sleep in his own bedroom without a parent being present. The parents’ bedroom is a neighbouring room.
In recent years, the situation has got worse, requiring a parent to stay with him all night in the double bed beside him whilst he sleeps in a single bed. Previous to this he slept with a parent (usually mother) in the double bed. He cannot cope with the parent leaving the bedroom, even to go to the bathroom. He gets distressed and demands the parent return to the bedroom.
It is worth noting he does stay overnight at a friend’s house, sleeping in the same bedroom as his friend.
Given that he will soon be 11 and there is no sign of any improvement, what advice would you give on how to support him to learn to sleep on his own and strategies that parents can implement to achieve this goal?
Answer: Nighttime is frequently a time of peak anxiety for children and as a result, lots of children find it hard to fall asleep alone. Many children need the reassurance of a parent being present to get to sleep in the first place and/or to return to sleep when they wake in the night.
This is a form of separation anxiety which is developmentally normal in young children. While most children grow out it when they start primary school, frequently it lasts longer into middle childhood, when it can become a block to a child gaining independence and disruptive to family life. The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to help your son learn to sleep by himself in a gradual, gentle and cooperative way.
Start with being very understanding
The first step is to help your son understand his feelings of anxiety at night. You want to communicate to him that his feelings are understandable – “lots of children feel a little lonely or anxious at night and like to have their parent nearby”. At 11 years of age, it is likely that your son thinks he is “abnormal” or a “bit mad” for not being able to sleep by himself.
As a parent, it is also easy to react with frustration that he can’t “just manage” and get to sleep. Such reactions will only make him more anxious and less likely to overcome the problem. As a result, it is important that you respond with empathy and compassion so he will more empathic and compassionate towards himself. Encourage him to talk about his feelings and what goes through his mind at night and take time to listen.
Get agreement to change
The next step is get his agreement about changing the nighttime pattern. You might acknowledge, “your mum and dad won’t be able to be always in the same room with you – shall we work on helping you be able to sleep in your own room”; “now that you are 11, I’m sure you want to learn to sleep by your self in your own room?” Helping him to decide that he wants to overcome the problem is very important to ensuring successful change.
Adopt a gradual approach
The best way to work towards the goal of him falling asleep is to break this down into small steps that he can achieve gradually. In your situation, that might start with 1) staying in his room as you normally do until he falls asleep; 2) then sitting outside with the door open; 3) then sitting in the next room; 4) sitting downstairs but coming up to check/ tuck him in every five minutes; 5) increasing the time you wait before coming back.
The key is to make the first step easy to achieve and you only progress to the next step when he has mastered the previous one. So you don’t become frustrated at the slow progression, make the time interesting for yourself as you wait (for instance, having time to read a favourite book while you wait outside his room). You can also put the steps on a visual chart that he can display in his room and give him points towards a reward for each step he takes.
Teach him strategies to manage his worry
Coach your son in strategies that he can use to manage his anxiety. Explore what he can do when he feels a bit anxious when you are out of the room . This might include counting his breaths, relaxing his body step by step, visualising a happy place, listening to relaxing music, recalling a happy experience during the day etc. You can practise breathing, yoga or mindful exercises with him before he sleeps so he can draw on these when you are not there.
Be positive and encouraging throughout. Recognise that it takes a lot of courage and hard work to overcome anxiety and take this seriously. Praise every step of progress and be reassuring if he becomes anxious – “don’t worry, you will be able to do this”. If he takes a step backwards, be understanding but also encourage him to try again. For example, if he comes out of his room when you are waiting outside or downstairs, say gently, “back to your bed now, when you are lying down and relaxing, I will come in to you”. The key is to encourage him to go back to bed himself and to reward this by your attention and reassurance once he has tried.
Ensure there are other fun and relaxing times during the day
As well as tackling his nighttime anxiety, ensure also you have fun play times and activities during the day that are anxiety free. Help him get involved in interests and passions which he enjoys and which bring him into contact with good friends. This will all build his resilience and self-esteem into the future.
- John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He will be delivering a number of Positive Parenting workshops in Cork on January 18th and 19th, in Galway on February 16th and in Dublin on March 7th, 8th and 28th. See solutiontalk.ie for details