Updated: Aug 2
Bedtime seems to be one of the most challenging times of a family's daily routine, and there are many reasons for it. When it is time to sleep, it is also time to stop distractions and slow down the mind and body. The goal is to get to a relaxed state that allows us to rest and eventually fall asleep. This process involves turning off the lights and letting our minds wander. However, this is often when unsolved problems or worries show up. And for kids, this is when bedtime fears take the central stage.
At bedtime, you may notice your child's muscles tensing up, their heart rate increasing, or they saying that their stomach hurts. These body reactions are all real. However, they are a stress response to their perception of a threat, not a real threat. As parents, we try different strategies to help our kids fall asleep in any possible (and sometimes unintentionally unhelpful) way. In this blog, I will explain the most common fears experienced by kids and what to do when children worry at nighttime.
Fear of the dark and other creepy things
One of the main reasons kids worry at bedtime is due to their fear of the dark. In the dark, many creepy or scary things can show up. And even if they are imaginary, these things seem very real to them, especially as their bodies react in response to these scary thoughts.
The most common things kids tell me they are afraid of are:
(a) monsters, aliens, ghosts or other scary creatures hiding in the closet, behind the curtains, or under the bed
(b) shadows or weird noises in the house
(c) robbers breaking in, kidnapping them or hurting them or their families
Fear of having nightmares
Research shows that at least 75% of children have bad dreams. Nightmares usually start around three years, peaking between ages 6 and 10 and decreasing afterward. Because nightmares seem real, they can trigger anxiety, fear, or other big emotions in children that are remembered when they wake up. Thus, children may start fearing falling asleep and having bad dreams. As a result, they may struggle with the bedtime routine and need a "safe person" (usually a parent) to be near them and prevent these nightmares from happening.
Fear of losing consciousness
Some kids also tell me that they worry about losing consciousness while asleep. They may also fear being the last person to fall asleep in their home or never waking up. Although these are not the most common nighttime worries, they tend to be quite scary for kids.
What do parents typically do when kids are anxious and struggling to sleep?
Studies have shown that when children are anxious about sleep because of such fears, parents tend to change their behaviours at bedtime to help their children avoid or alleviate sleep-related anxiety. They may stay in the room until the child is fast asleep, spend a long time reassuring the child that they are safe, sleep in their child's bed or bedroom through the night, or even let their child sleep in their own room. With the best intentions and hope for a restful night, parents do whatever it takes to get their children a good night of sleep.
Parents' change in behaviour at bedtime has a name!
The changes in parents' behaviour to decrease their child's anxiety is a widely studied phenomenon called family accommodation. In fact, more than 95% of parents of anxious children report that they "accommodate" their child's anxiety. By accommodating, I mean changing their behaviour or routines to make the child feel less anxious in the moment.
Unfortunately, family accommodation has been shown to decrease stress and alleviate anxiety only temporarily. And instead, it has the opposite effect of maintaining the child's anxiety in the long run. This is because family accommodation facilitates ongoing avoidance and reduces the child's independent coping. For instance, with sleep, family accommodation can help the child fall asleep faster when the parent is around, but it likely reinforces the belief that the child is unable to sleep alone unless the parent is present, which then becomes a habit that is hard to break. Thus, it is important for children who experience anxiety at bedtime to learn how to sleep on their own.
How can I help my child to sleep on their own?
The answer is short, but the process can be long, energy- and patience-consuming. Beyond having a consistent bedtime routine, you can reduce family accommodation by gradually changing your behaviour to increase your child's independence at nighttime! Keep in mind that consistency is key here. So, if you decide it's time to change your behaviour, make sure you stick to it!
Reduce reassurance seeking. If you need to reassure your child that they are safe at nighttime, the goal is to provide fewer reassurance statements per night. For example, if you need to spend 10 minutes explaining that the child is safe, reduce the time to 5. Or if you need to answer ten questions, answer five and no more.
Exit the room. If you need to stay near your child until they fall asleep, work towards physically moving away from them. For example, if you have to sit in your child's bed until they fall asleep, try moving to a chair near the bed for several days until your child gets used to it. Then, move closer to the door and eventually hang out outside in the corridor until they are fast asleep. You can also have short check-ins rather than staying in their room. Start checking in on them every 5 minutes and gradually increase the time between check-in as your child learns to tolerate the discomfort of being in the room alone. For more information on how to do this, see this link provided by Anxiety Canada.
What should I say when my child is scared at bedtime?
As you start gradually reducing family accommodation, there is a quick phrase to tell children based on an evidence-based program called SPACE for parents of anxious children that works very well for many families. This statement provides validation and confidence that the child can cope with the discomfort of sleeping alone. Whenever your child tells you they are scared of staying in the room alone as you begin reducing family accommodation, say the following to them once: "I know this is hard for you (validation), and I know you can do it! (confidence)." Then continue to stay in your new spot in the room away from your child or check in on them after the pre-determined time. You can also praise them once for being brave.
What if this doesn't work?
Changing a habit or bedtime routine that has been reinforced over the years can take time and persistence. If you get stuck, I strongly suggest you consult with an experienced therapist who uses Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to help children manage anxiety. For more information on how to find the right professional for your child, please see my previous blog.
To sum up
Sleep is essential not only for your child but also for you to function well. Fears of the dark, imaginary creatures or nightmares are common among kids, yet stressful and challenging for many families. To support your child to cope with their fears and become independent at nighttime, parents must provide them with the opportunities to practice being brave gradually! In addition, it is crucial to celebrate every step towards their independence at bedtime. Make sure you describe your child's efforts to face their fears and success in gradually staying alone in their room.
NOTE about the author: Dr. Juliana is a registered psychologist who has clinical and research experience treating kids with anxiety, OCD and other related conditions. She has published an academic paper on the role of parenting in childhood anxiety and was the lead developer of two free school-based anxiety curriculums delivered by many K-Grade 7 teachers across BC and Saskatchewan.