Running out of her bedroom screaming in the middle of the night.
Obsessed with worry about our cats sneaking into her bedroom in the dark, but unwilling to close the door.
Scared of bedroom shadows and her own image in a mirror.
Fearful of returning to bed alone.
This a sample of what our now 5-year-old daughter dealt with this past summer. I’m pleased to report that our family has (mostly) come out on the other side of this nightmarish time. Here’s our story:
Our daughter has shown signs of anxiety since early toddlerhood, but nothing ever severe or life-altering. She has had bedtime rituals for years as many children do. It seemed to my untrained eyes and ears to be run-of-the-mill stalling: another request for a kiss or assurance that I will be staying in the house while she is in bed.
And so it went for several years. I would appease her many times by giving her whatever-it-was that she wanted, frankly, to not disrupt her twin brother, tucked in his bedroom across the hall. No harm done, right?
Unknowingly, I was feeding this habit by acquiescing instead of helping her to cope with being alone in her room. As a result of this, her need for reassurance spun out of control.
When Things Changed….
Fast forward to Summer 2017. I finally got a clue that I had not been doing Caroline any favors by caving in to her nighttime pleas, so I began to decline giving that extra kiss or telling her for the 5th time that I will leave her door open while she sleeps. How did this go over, you may wonder?
Our previously uneventful nighttime routine turned into hell. Caroline would catapult out of bed crying uncontrollably after I tucked her in. In return, I would calmly help her get back into her bed and walk out of the bedroom. Some nights, this would go on for hours. Exhausted from staying up too late, my husband and I would crash each night, only to be awakened by our daughter’s screams as she would run into our bedroom in the wee hours of the morning.
As you can well imagine, this routine took quite a toll on the family. The fatigue I had not experienced since our twins were newborns came blazing back, but this time, I was unprepared for it. My patience, previously one my qualities of which I’ve been most proud, abandoned me. Gone was my ability to deal to stressful situations with a measured, controlled response. The morning after my daughter’s hysterics led me to sob the words, “Go away,” I felt immense shame and finally concluded that we were in way over our heads.
We needed help.
Enter our saviours: one of my oldest and dearest friends and a professional counselor. The first step in turning this nightmare around, at least in my mind, was trying to understand what my child was going through.
I met with my friend this summer and listened with fresh ears as she shared her childhood story again, hearing it for the first time as a parent experiencing it. She reminded me how she (and her parents) endured many sleep-deprived nights as she raced up and down the hallways in panic.
As a young girl, my friend had no idea why she did what she did. She didn’t choose to engage in these behaviors, but her anxiety and distress rendered her unable to control her actions. Hearing her describe the emotional torment she experienced went a long way to helping me reign in my anger during Caroline’s middle-of-the-night episodes.
At 2 a.m. that next morning as I tucked my distraught daughter back into her bed, I saw the panic fade away from her face as I declared to her that we were on the same team. We had to work together to squash the “Worry Bug.” She and I were tougher than that nasty creature, so he didn’t stand a chance!
Thus began the turning point. Our focus shifted away from punishment toward empowerment. Caroline needed to be given the tools to cope with her anxiety. As parents, we had to do an about-face to concentrate on proactive solutions instead of reactive disciplinary actions.
Strategies for Tackling Nighttime Anxiety
Our counselor and friend provided us some terrific strategies to help fight off nighttime anxiety:
- Create a stuffed animal “fortress” in the bed for extra security.
- Designate a “magic blanket” which the child can use to wrap tightly around herself when she feels nervous.
- Alternatively, a weighted blanket can be used. There are lots of cute ones on Etsy!
- Try a lavender diffuser in the bedroom.
- If the child is able to work electronics sufficiently, an iPod could be put by the bed to play soothing music any time he or she is feeling anxious.
- Put a flashlight beside the bed.
For my daughter, I found a previously discarded teddy bear which just happened to be the perfect cuddling size, tied a pretty bow around its neck and reintroduced it to Caroline as her special nighttime teddy bear who would make her feel snuggly and safe.
I also presented her with her very own “magic blanket” adorned with cute cartoon characters. Caroline insists on draping the blanket over her covers so she can have full view of the butterfly.
In the last few months, Caroline’s nighttime anxiety has improved dramatically. She seldom wakes up upset during the night, but when she does, she settles back into bed without protesting too much and doesn’t get out of bed again. There is still work to be done with lessening her dependence on me to help her fall asleep, but I am very encouraged with the progress that has been made.
Out of this seemingly endless, emotionally draining summer came one silver lining: I was given a rare opportunity to better understand the mind of my young child during a time of bewilderment and angst. That insight proved to be an essential first step to helping ease the anxiety which plagued our daughter.
I am not so disillusioned to believe that anxiety has vanished from Caroline’s life forever, but now I too feel empowered and capable to help her combat it should it resurface.
Readers, have your children battled nighttime anxiety? How did you help your little one overcome those feelings?
For other information and ideas for helping your child, visit these sites:
- Coping Skills for Kids – 12 Kid-Friendly Strategies to Calm Anxiety at Night from a Child Therapist
- Baby Center — Nighttime Fears: Why They Happen and What to Do About Them (ages 5 to 8)
- Psychology Today — Helping Your Anxious Child Overcome Bedtime Fears
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