Parents of anxious children face a conundrum. They know that better sleep can only help… and they don’t know how to get there. Because insisting on new sleep boundaries is only going to make both sleep and anxiety worse, right?
Sleep training does not have to be traumatic. It does not need to make anxiety worse. In fact, successful sleep training can really help anxiety.
I’ve worked with two children with anxiety in the past two weeks and sleep training was a huge success for both.
Here are their stories. After that, some tips for working with anxious children. (Note: all young children are anxious at times, and you don’t need a diagnosis of anxiety to struggle with these issues, or to use the technqiues outlined below.)
First, Liam. Liam was a skin picker when he felt anxious. He had multiple scabs on his body as a result. His parents worried that sleep training would make things worse. It was a battle to keep bandaids on him and they were worried about the risk of infection.
Here’s what his mother said after our two weeks working together,
“To my shock, his skin picking didn’t get any worse with sleep training.
And what’s more, I actually saw that setting clear boundaries around sleep really helped him. As a result, I started setting more clear boundaries at other times and you were right, when he had a tantrum about a boundary I set (he wanted more bread and I said no), I just waited. Afterwards, I didn’t discuss it with him, I just said, “do you want a hug” and he did, and after that, he was calm. I couldn’t believe it!”
Child number two, Layla. Layla is almost two-years-old and has always had a fiery temperament, unlike her even-tempered twin sister. Layla’s mother was nursing her all night long, in an attempt to get Layla the rest she desperately needed, even though it was physically painful for Mom. Any time that Layla’s mother tried to refuse to nurse, Layla got furious. She would leave the family bed and go sit in the corner of their bedroom and refuse to come back. She also had night terrors.
Less than a week after starting sleep training, Layla is peacefully sleeping through the night. In the family bed. Her night terrors have disappeared. She is sleeping many more hours, and goes to sleep peacefully at bedtime as well as nap time. While she still has a fiery temperament, her mom can see a huge change in her – Layla is more easygoing and happy now.
Tips for working with anxious children:
1. Anxious children need extra time to prepare for big changes. I recommend starting to prepare toddlers and preschoolers three days ahead of time. Have a family meeting, make a social story to help explain the upcoming changes, and continue to remind them of the upcoming changes over the three days prior to making them.
It’s important to talk, talk, talk about what is going to happen… even if your child gets mad. The anger is actually very healthy, because it means she is starting to process the changes ahead of time, which means the day you make the change will be that much easier. So don't stop talking when she gets upset!
Also, if someone took away your beloved morning coffee or evening Netflix, you’d be mad, too. You like your routine… and so does she! Let her have space to be mad…. And show her that you will love her through it!
2. Anxious children may need to make changes more slowly. This requires extra patience from you. In Layla’s case, we had her dad stay with her at bedtime to get used to not nursing to sleep. Once she was used to that, he started to gradually withdraw his presence after lights out. With zero tears.
3. Anxious children need boundaries even more than other children. It is an act of love, not cruelty, to establish and maintain boundaries. When children rule the household, it gives them the scary feeling of too much power. Young children don’t want that… even though they resist boundaries. Know that it's a child's job to test boundaries -- it's his way of figuring out how the world works -- and it's your job to maintain them. Even in the presence of meltdowns.
4. Emotions are never a problem. Let her have her big feelings… without changing the boundary. Stay close during a tantrum, stop talking, avoid eye contact. Just sit down and wait. Let her yell and cry. Stay silent. When it’s over – I promise it won’t last long, even if it feels like an eternity – quietly offer a hug. And be amazed that your child feels better after releasing those big emotions.
I know it is scary to set new boundaries with anxious children. You don’t have to go it alone. Set up a free discovery call and find out how much happier your entire family will feel – most especially your anxious child – when you all get the sleep you deserve.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.