“My stomach hurts."
“I can't sleep."
“Can you close my closet?"
“Can I just sleep with you?"
Sound familiar? You are not alone—and neither is your child.
Obviously all children have times of anxiety when leaving their parents or meeting new people or going to a sleepover for the first time. Most will even go through a period of wanting to sleep in your room. But a lot of times, they grow out of this phase.
For a while, I traveled a couple of days a week for work—and my leaving was excruciating because of the separation anxiety my daughter was experiencing. It was also excruciating when I called home and could barely understand anything being said through enormous fits of tears and "Come home, Mommy, please come home."
It broke my heart. My husband was frustrated and downright cranky. Trying to get her to school was anything but pretty in the mornings I was away. I felt enormous guilt and was torn between trying to calm and comfort Carrie or telling her that she needed to go to school. She had tummy aches at school and worried I was going to get hurt or die or not come home. I often hung up in tears myself. But I comforted myself. I thought " this too shall pass".
Things improved when I was home more often. There was continuity, I was clued into her sensitivity and she felt safe. So again, I wasn't too concerned. She went to school just fine, she liked her teachers, had friends, and had fun. She was actually back to being a bundle of joy, laughter, and creativity. Until she wasn't.
Carrie started to turn down play dates—or would only have them at our house. She wanted to only play one on one, she said she felt like a prisoner at school, and she was always worried. She had elaborate tantrums and inconsolable tears. She stopped going to sleep overs, or would go but have to be picked up in the night.
And then, after years of sleeping just fine in her own room, she stopped. At first we thought she must have had a bad dream the night before or something. But it kept going. Night after night, we would check her room and closet for bad guys and people that might want to hurt Mom. She couldn't sleep because what if there was a fire? What if someone broke into the house? What if she was kidnapped? Or worse, what if her brother was?
We knew something was off. There was no talking logic to her and there was no sleep for any of us. So when we were beyond ourselves with exhaustion and frustration, we found a counselor and had her start seeing someone to talk to and work through the fears. At this point, we were all struggling. The stress was taking a toll on all of us.
Our efforts to calm her or use reasoning were completely ineffective. Sick of the arguing and tears, we tried letting her sleep with us for a very little while. Then no one slept because the bed was too small and she thrashed around all night. Finally, counselor number two suggested we try something different: put an extra bed in her room and one of us sleep there. Eventually, Carrie started getting sleep this way, but neither my husband or I were.
Step two was that once she fell asleep, we then returned to our bed. That worked … until she woke up, saw we weren't there anymore, and started screaming. Or woke up from a nightmare. Back one of us went. By then we were so tired ourselves that we might fall asleep in her room before she did – thereby not affecting any change in the right direction.
A tired parent is a short-tempered parent. Our house that was once so joyful and peaceful was now filled with angst, anger, and just plain exhaustion.
By now, we had tried all of the tricks. Gentle bedtime routine? Check. Regular bedtime? Check. Warm bath; stories; snuggles? Check, check, and check. We encouraged rituals that soothed her—gave her her blanket and favorite stuffy.
We tried meditation, soft music and then white noise when that didn't work. She read. We read to her. You name it, we tried it. At this point we realized she was experiencing anxiety and we were well beyond our abilities to solve the issue. So we found a new therapist to help.
Our new therapist was great—Carrie really took to her and looked forward to seeing her.
One of us was still staying in her room at this point. We tried leaving after she fell asleep. More tears. Then the doctor suggested a more gradual approach. After getting her to bed and completing our nightly, calming rituals, we (one of us) sat in her room. Not on a bed, not lying down. We sat in a chair so we would not fall asleep. Which, if I'm honest, had its own issues, but still.
When she fell asleep, we were supposed to move to the hallway and sit there. Slowly, ever so slowly over many nights, we moved a little farther away within the room, then into the hallway, then further down the hallway, until finally we made it to our own bedroom.
So how did our new therapist help? A few ways. She had Carrie talk about her fears and give voice to them. Apparently that sounds way easier than it is. The anxiety that Carrie felt also meant she had had a hard time voicing or admitting to the scary thoughts. So her therapist had her look at What Ifs. She talked about those What Ifs. Then Carrie would tell me about them so I could help her at home.
For instance if she brought up a fire, we could lead her through that. "Have you ever had a fire or known anyone who did? If not, was there a reason her house might get one? Did anyone smoke or leave on the gas? No, well then was it possible no fire would happen?" Same with a burglar or an airplane trip—or whatever. We learned to walk and talk her through her fears. Which sounds good and is a great starting point. But of course that alone didn't do it, as this anxiety is not rational.
Another helpful tip was having her picture her fear and describe it. Then draw it and name it. That helped put some distance between the fear and her.
Another winner? While we had tried relaxation and meditation apps (didn't work for her) her therapist taped her own soothing voice in a little meditation for Carrie. It reminded her what to do, how to relax, how to help herself. We had her play that in her bed when she was experiencing a tough night. And as we got one night of sleep, it went to two, then maybe back a step—but eventually we had success.
She realized she could make the this sleep issue disappear all on her own. She owned it and she conquered it. And eventually, she even went on a successful sleepover again.
Last week she came back from three weeks away on a service trip where she didn't know anyone. That was a really beautiful thing.