Bedtime Battles or Bedtime Fears: Are You Missing the Signs?

Eight questions to ask your child to find out:

They come out of their bedroom repeatedly. They need to pee. They need to get a drink (so they can pee some more)! They need one extra hug. They need you to fix their blanket.

Sound familiar?

Bedtime battles happen for a zillion reasons. They aren’t tired. They want to play longer. They don’t want to miss out on the fun (Netfix and a tub of ice cream anyone)?

But, sometimes, this annoying, tiring behavior is an indication of something more.

Of a nervous child. A child with racing thoughts and a worried mind. A child that may never mention that they are scared. Never mention that they have worries.

A child that has been labelled difficult.

You yell, scream and threaten your child to go to bed – but nothing works. Worries are often immune to punishment.

When parents come to my child therapy practice for bedtime battles – the first thing I rule out are bedtime fears. Why? Because if your child won’t go to bed because they are scared, no amount of typical parenting is going to make that go away.

You need to fix the fear – not the bedtime refusal.

So how do you differentiate what is causing the behavior?

Here are the questions I ask kids when trying to figure out the difference.

As I talked about in my article How to Get Your Kids to Talk, you want to avoid asking closed ended questions or questions that lead your child.

Under each question I provide examples of how children with and without worries typically answer these questions.

This is by far not an exhaustive list of questions or responses and should only serve as a guide.

Please note – these questions are only for informational purposes and are not intended to be used to diagnose children. If your child has sleep concerns, please seek out the guidance of your pediatrician and/or a local child therapist.

What is the worst part about going to bed?

Without worries: I am not tired. It is boring. Why do I have to go to bed when they [siblings] don’t have to? I go to bed so early, it’s not fair.

With worries: It is so dark. I can’t shut my mind off. I’m scared. I just can’t sleep. I hear noises. I don’t know when you guys are going to bed [kids with worries at night are more likely to have a preference about when their parents go to sleep].

If you could change one thing about bedtime what would it be?

Without worries: I would get to stay up longer. I could watch TV in my bedroom.

With worries: You would lie down with me. You would stay with me until I fall asleep. My room would be brighter. I can sleep with you.

What do you think about when you are trying to fall asleep?

Without worries: Nothing, I am just trying to go to bed. My day tomorrow. What happened today.

With worries: What if a bad guy breaks in? What if there is something in my closet? What if there is something under my bed? What if someone will break through my window? What if a ghost wants to hurt me? What if an alien abducts me? What if someone is outside my door? I feel like I am being watched. I worry about the noises I am hearing. I worry about tests and school the next day. I feel like my heart is pounding. I worry I might be sick. I worry I might die if I go to sleep. I worry something bad will happen to you when I go to sleep. I worry you might leave the house when I am sleeping and I will be all alone.

What keeps you up the most when trying to sleep?

Without worries: I am just not tired. I hear you guys watching TV.

With worries: I think I see things in the shadows. I hear noises that scare me. I wonder when you guys are going to go to bed. I wonder when you are going to leave (if you lie with them at night). I worry someone might try to kidnap me. I feel like I am having a hard time breathing.

What makes it hard to go to bed? 

Without worries: I am not tired. I don’t like sleeping. I am not ready for bedtime.

With worries: I am scared at night. I feel like something bad might happen. It is so dark in my room. The shadows look like people. Sometimes I hear things in the house and I think someone is breaking in.

If you could change one thing in your room when going to bed – what would it be?

Without worries: I don’t know?

With worries: It is too dark. Certain objects/toys look scary in the dark. I don’t like my closet. I don’t like my bed by the window [children with worries often believe someone is watching them through the window or will break their window. It doesn’t matter if they have blinds or if their room is on the second floor – worries don’t always make sense].

If you could change your bedtime routine what would it look like?

Without worries:  You would let me stay up later! I can play on my computer/iPad/phone in my bed.

With worries: You would lie down with me as I go to sleep. I could fall asleep in your bed. I could keep my light on. I can move my bed. You wouldn’t leave me.

How do you feel when I tell you it is time to go to bed?

Without worries: Annoyed – I don’t want to go to sleep. I don’t like having to stop watching TV or playing.

With worries: Scared. Fearful. Worried that it will soon be pitch black and everyone in the house will be sleeping, but me. My stomach feels weird. I feel nervous.

If your child answered with worry-based responses, it is likely their bedtime battles have more to do with fear than with anything else.

Helping your child fight their fears will eventually end the bedtime battles. You can read books that address their worries and teach them how to work through their fears of the dark.

Courtesy of Natasha Daniels


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