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Child Therapist, Molly Selby MSW, LCSW, Answers How to End Bedtime Fears with your Kids

Laurie Groh MS LPC SAS, therapist and co-owner of Shoreside therapies interviews Molly Selby MSW, LCSW on Q&A: How to end Your kids bedtime fears. Molly gives so much useful information on child development and how to help navigate a common issue with kids, bedtime fears. Get tips on how to help them through it.

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Molly Selby, MSW, LCSW

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Video Transcript

Laurie: Hi, my name is Laurie Groh and I'm co-owner and therapists at Shoreside Therapies. Today, we're here again with Molly Shelby and she works at Shoreside therapies as a child and adolescent therapist. And today we're going to be talking about bedtime fears, which is a topic I think a lot of parents can relate to. I know my kids had struggled a little bit with those, really at each age group. There's something new going on with bedtime.

Molly: Definitely.

Laurie: Thanks for joining us.

Molly: Hi, everybody watching.

Laurie: So the first question I have is when do bed time fear start?

Laurie: OK, well, about one third of children struggle with falling asleep at night, and those struggles often start as young as around eight to 10 months old. That's about when babies start to realize that when you leave the room or go away from them, that you still exist, but you're just not with them anymore. Earlier than that, when they're younger than that, when you're out of sight, it's sort of out of mind. They just they don't think about you much because they just don't have that awareness. So as soon as they're aware that, oh, they're gone, but they still exist, I want them back! So that's when that separation anxiety starts for a lot of babies. And it's very common, very common for them to get upset when you leave the room.

Molly: So then when kids reach about two years old, around 2 years old, they start to really realize how much they depend on their caregivers for protection and to keep them safe and to provide for all their needs. So sometimes we'll see it really start to grow a little bit more around bedtime, especially if you're trying to maintain them sleeping in their crib without you. That could be another challenging time.

Laurie: So Molly, around 2 years old, there might be another form of the sleep, fear or fear when they're going in their crib away from you, more built out of dependency, which is a natural stage of development, right?

Laurie: Absolutely. Yeah. And it's good for them to attach to us as caregivers, you know. Absolutely. We want that. But we just have to balance that with letting them self soothe, learn how to self soothe, but also reassuring them that they are safe and secure and that I'm still here, but I'm just maybe in the next room. But this is a process it takes years to to build that trust and build that relationship that they they understand that that you're not going away forever.

Molly: So then around preschool, three to four years old, that's when kids start to become aware that they don't have any control over things that happen in the outside world, but they start to recognize weather, you know, that weather is scary and they start to notice more things on TV or start to really hear a lot more stories, bedtime stories even, or just children's stories that start to introduce some characters that could be a little bit scary to them in the preschool years. So sometimes we'll see then an increase in another little increase in fears and at bedtime, difficulty falling asleep. Because also at three to four years old is when their imaginations are really developing and really growing in leaps and bounds.

Laurie: Yeah, yeah. And that's good and bad, right, for them.

Molly: Yeah. It's a fun time because they have a big imagination and that can be alot of fun but it can also create a lot of fear.

Laurie: Yeah I know my kids are, my twins are four and so there was a lot of questions of what if this and what if that? And what if this and what of that? And then do your best to help them through that. But it is like the world opens up and they do realize that they don't have as much control. And I think transitions in general at that age can be challenging, especially at bedtime. I've noticed that for sure.

Molly: Yeah, right. Because that's the big time in a child's life when they are going to separate from you and be alone with their thoughts. So, when they they typically peak these bedtime fears around five or six, so you're not out of the woods yet.

Molly: I am, my kids are older.

Laurie: But, you know, around five or six, that's when they really start to realize that bad things can happen to people they love.

Molly: So at three or four years old, it's a little more self-centered, a little more something bad could happen to me. And then at five or six, they start to realize, oh, my gosh, something bad could happen to mom and dad something and bad things can happen out in the neighborhood. You know, there's a greater sense of the world around them, around five or six. So that adds another layer of the the fears and along with their imaginations still, you know, running wild at that age.

Molly: And Molly, luckily, I do have a six year old as well. So that's stage too. Right. Right, right. And there is a lot of questions.

Laurie: Well, she has a lot of questions about what if something's going to happen, you know, and I think especially right now during the pandemic, there's a lot of questions about "Is somebody going to die?" And so it starts to get tough around bedtime because, again, like you said, all of a sudden now you're with yourself and all those thoughts and feelings can come up at that point, you know? So, yeah. So go on at that stage too.

Molly: Right. Well, the good news is around seven to eleven and thinking becomes a little more concrete. So while it's still very common for kids around that age to still be struggling with bedtime fears, and they do still have an active imagination, but they are, hopefully, starting to learn and develop, learn to trust and develop trust that you're going to keep them safe as caregivers and that they are secure and safe in your home, you know, so that that typically starts to get better. And then the really good news is that around 12, we typically see a big decrease in bedtime fears because at that age they start worrying about different things like their peers and what other kids at school think about them. And so it's not that there's not still worries at bedtime, but they're not necessarily the same kind of fears as in childhood.

Laurie: Yeah, and that makes sense. It becomes more social fears, right. Versus fears of getting harmed yourself or someone else getting harmed or dying. Right. I mean, those are tend to be the fears that I hear anyways.

Molly: Yes. Yes. Yeah. Well, that just leads us right into what kinds of fears do they have at that time? And this could be any of those ages, anywhere from preschool all the way up to like around around 12.

Molly: So we hear I hear a lot of kids having a fear of separation from the parent. A fear of the dark is a big one. And that's mainly just because, obviously, you take away your sight and then you don't know what's there. And when it's very dark in the room, fears of monsters, ghosts, strangers, these can all be common characters in childhood books and TV shows and nightmares. So kids will start to talk about having nightmares already at those ages of preschool, going upstairs alone or even just being in their room alone. Even if it's not bedtime. That's a common fear for for younger children. And then sleeping alone is a common fear. So, yeah, they're bad all night by themselves.

Laurie: Yeah. And I remember too, Molly, from my experience as a child of running to my bed, jumping in and, you know, I don't want the mom to grab me from under the bed.

Laurie: And I would take a huge jump and usually I would make it.

Molly: Yeah, yeah, I know. My dad used to talk about that, thinking the lions under his bed.

Molly: And yeah, I mean, I think it's a lot more common than we think. And the good news is there are a lot of things that we can do as caregivers to to try to minimize them and help our kids through that developmental stage. Yeah, because it is a very common thing in in those developmental stages.

Laurie: And it's in a lot of times it is hard to remember what it was really like as a child too and how our imagination at that time is really hard to tame. So I guess that's another point, too, of just remembering, where they're at developmentally. So I like that you shared that piece of information because that sometimes I know I forget. Oh, they're six. Oh, they're four you know, they're not ten years old yet.

Molly: Right. They don't have the experience, the life experience to to really understand and trust that some things are are fantasy and some things are reality. And when they're asking you those questions, they're, they're asking you because they genuinely don't know. You know, I think. Sometimes parents are like, oh, come on, you surely know that monsters aren't real.

Molly: Well, you know, I'm four, I don't know, that's why I'm asking, you know.

Laurie: Yes, totally. Yes.

Laurie: So, Molly. Going on to what parents can actually do. What are some tips? What can parents do to help?

Laurie: OK, so there are three main things that I want to talk about and that can help. One is developing and maintaining a predictable, consistent bedtime routine. That's number one. Number two is creating a comfortable, peaceful environment in their bedroom. And number three is to create a token economy reward system for your child and to celebrate their bravery. When they when they are successful at sleeping in their room. OK, so let's go back to number one. So developing that predictable bedtime routine. There are certain elements that I think are really important to include in that. So the first one is really, really hard to do. And I have to admit, I'm was no always successful at this one. But turning off the TV one hour before bed, super hard. And I know it's a huge sacrifice to parents, too, because, you know, we're all trying to wind down from our workday. And and it's obviously much easier to watch the TV. However, if you turn it off an hour before the child's bedtime, then you just are you're going to go ahead and start the bedtime routine well before you actually want them to stay in their bed and you're going to walk away because it's going to take time. But over the years, that time will get shorter and shorter and shorter. So, you know, but at first, if you're really first starting a predictable bedtime routine, you know, it's probably going to take some work to get it going and then it should go quicker, as you, as you say, consistent. So turn the TV off an hour before try to stop drinks, drinks of water, drinks of things, at least one to two hours before bedtime just so that we don't have that mommy, I have to go potty because we want to make sure that that we're not having a legitimate bathroom breaks needed after bedtime. Of course, you know, you're going to include putting on your pajamas, brushing your teeth, using toilet and all that. But another good suggestion that I have is to try to lay out the clothes for tomorrow, because what even if they're not going anywhere, you know, maybe what are we going to wear tomorrow? Because it shows that you trust there is a tomorrow and that you trust that you're going to see them tomorrow. And so, yeah, so they're already thinking tomorrow is definitely coming.

Laurie: I love that idea.

Molly: And then we go into what you were saying when the kids are asking questions, try to do have a specific time, set aside maybe 10 minutes, five to 10 minutes to talk and listen and snuggle. So this would be the time to ask, how are you feeling about being in here tonight? Are you having any worries? If you don't want to bring it up, you can say, you know, just how was your day? How are you feeling tonight? Talk about feelings. If they really can't explain it, maybe start introducing some emotion vocabulary to teach them how to express their feelings at that time and then answer any of those questions honestly, but at age appropriate ways if they do have worries.

Laurie: That part I like to because that time is is so valuable that one on one time and at bedtime is kids just tend to be able to talk more. I mean they do might be the goal to stay up. There could be that little goal there, but. It just seems like they're more likely to say, hey, this is how my day went, at that time of day.

Molly: Yeah. And you can tell them talk time is five minutes or not. Time is ten minutes or whatever, but you can set a boundary on that. Then you're going to go into maybe to try to teach one like calming coping skill each night like and it can be as short as thirty seconds long, like hey let's just lay here and kind of take some deep breaths together and imagine our favorite place, something like teaching a little bit of deep breathing, teaching a little bit of visualization can help, doesn't have to be anything real elaborate, but just teaching them that you use those skills too, to calm yourself. And then I think reading a book or a story at night is awesome. Great. And just be careful of the content of the bedtime story. I mean, if you have pirate stories and monster stories, those are great for daytime. Try to avoid those like a bedtime story just because you might be planning and seed that might contribute to a nightmare or contribute to thoughts after you leave that room. So try to have it be a little more positive. I mean, you can read emotion books at night, that can be helpful or just just books that tend to have a happy ending that doesn't have something's scaring them. Then here's what I think is the most important element is the quick tuck in and exit. So they know that the talk time is before the book, when the book ends, we're done.

Laurie: I like that.

Molly: Give a hug. I love you. I'll see you tomorrow. Pull up the covers. Last kiss. Out the door. And if they say "But wait...I wanted to talk." No. We'll have to save that for tomorrow's talk time. We already did our talk tonight. That way they'll know that's part of the routine.

Laurie: So I might need some coaching on that one, Molly. I might need some help on that one.

Molly: Well, because, you know, with separation anxiety, we know that the more the more you drag out the actual separation, it's like pulling taffy. You know, it's it's going to be real tough. But so you need to clean fast, break, when it's really time to leave. Not that you don't reassure, but do that before. When it's time to go. It's time to go. Quick.

Laurie: I like that tip.

Molly: So in my experience, that has really, really helped.

Molly: OK, so let's talk about that comfortable environment that we're going to create. I want you to focus on looking at the lighting, the sound and the temperature in the room. So involve your child in looking at those things. How do you feel in here? Do you have enough covers? Is it too dark or is the night light creating shadows? Is it too quiet? Is it too loud? Are we being too loud out in the living room? I'm a big believer in white noise, so maybe in that hmmm of of a fan in the summertime, or if it's too cold to do that in the winter, an air purifier machine can work or they have a lot of those nature noise machines that just have a white noise. But honestly, they're not as good as the real thing, like an air purifier or a fan. But what that does is it just creates this constant sound that has doesn't give them anything to think about, like songs would, although that might work for some kids, songs, but it doesn't necessarily keep them up, but it drowns out any other kinds of little bumps, creeks in the house that might keep them awake and keep them scared.

Laurie: So, yeah, I love that tip too.

Molly: Yeah. And there's a lot of great nightlights out there that change colors or they can choose their most soothing color, things like that, to just create that peaceful environment. You can considered a weighted blanket if they're feeling insecure and they just need that that comfort of almost feels like a hug from your blanket. (NOTE: child should be 3 or older, 50+ lbs)

Laurie: Yeah. I could see how a lot of kids would like that because my kids in particular like me to to sort of snuggle them like this where where my bodies on top of them to calm down. And at first you're like, well OK, I guess and you do that. But it's, you know, as an adult, you're trying not to squash them. That would work a lot better that to calm their bodies down because that's what they're really looking for.

Molly: Yeah, the weighted blanket or body pillow, you know, those big body pillows that they can kind of hug or even like a giant soft bear that that so they feel like they have something to hug in that bed. Yeah. And, you know, I think stuffed animals, bedtime security objects are are fine. You know, some parents are concerned if they're, you know, seven, eight year old is still sleeping with a teddy bear. But I would not let that concern you at all. That's fine. I know plenty of girls who actually take their teddy bears to college. And there's no there's no research that says that that's a bad thing. Whatever, you know, if you have a blanket or a teddy that you love. Believe me, when they when they get old enough, they'll put it away and they'll be done with that. They're probably not going to take that into their marriage bed.

Laurie: But I like that reassurance, too, of like, there'll be a point where that's not they're not going to want that and they make that choice. And sometimes as a parent, you want to say, OK, well, that developmental stage is over, you should be done with that. But that usually just reinforces it and makes it a power struggle. And it's really not necessary. Right?

Molly: Right. And it might make them feel guilty about still feeling like they need it. And everybody does develop at different rates. And and that is really is really OK. OK, so let's talk about that reward system that I talked about. Now, a lot of some parents, I should say, a lot of some parents are against the idea of a token economy reward system. They think kids should just do what they're supposed to do. And I totally get that. But if you're having a lot of trouble at bedtime, then they're obviously not. So we need to try a different approach. Right? I mean, if if they don't need a reward system, awesome. I mean, it's just the first two steps work, then don't do it. But if that's not working and you need some motivation, some outside motivation that really is OK and reward systems do not have to involve tangible objects at all. In fact, I encourage that the reward in a reward system be attention and time or an activity rather than a tangible object because you don't want to get into. OK, I'll buy you a toy, and now I have to buy you a bigger toy. And now I have to buy you an iPad. I mean, yeah, that can get ridiculous and out of hand really quickly.

Molly: So in general, I'm not just on tangible rewards, but if you set up even just a little sticker program, little sticker chart or something or I like marbles in a jar like every morning, if the bedtime went well, we're going to add another marble to your jar when that jar is all full, then we're going to go to your favorite park or take a little hike or I'm going to give you a coupon that says I'm going to spend a whole hour of my undivided attention playing your favorite board game. You know, just anything, because kids are seeking that anyway.

Laurie: Yeah. And even an extra book, right? I mean, absolutely. I know my kids, if that's if that's on the table, they would work pretty hard to get an extra book at night. Yes. Yeah.

Molly: And you decide based on their age, how long they should earn these tokens toward a reward. You don't want it to be so long that they get discouraged, like, oh, my gosh, it's going to take a year for you to get this or eight. But you also don't want it too quick where you're constantly having to give new rewards. So it's a balancing act there.

Laurie: Yeah, yeah. I think that part's important of knowing like how long can they actually go. Maybe it's a week if they're around four to six or something. Right. Like they're sure it needs to be shorter for younger kids in general.

Molly: Yes. Even maybe two or three, maybe three nights for a three or four year old.

Laurie: So all right. So what, what do you think if if your child, if someone's child is still having some of these fears and anxiety, the tips might not be working as well as they would want them to. What are some some thoughts, some tips on what to do next?

Molly: OK, well, you know, if if it's not working very well and if you especially if you've already been staying with your child a lot in the bed and they're used to that, you may not be able to jump straight from that to to not being in there at all. So it's perfectly OK to kind of build into this gradually. So you might consider, again, talking with your child about the plan and saying we're going to start trying to decrease the amount of time that I'm staying with you in in the bedroom because that tends to be what happens is when kids have bedtime fears. They want mom and dad or parents or guardians to stay with them for a longer period of time until they fall asleep. But that can get to an hour or an hour and a half sometimes if kids are really struggling. And so we want to do is start wherever you are where if it's an hour, that's where you start. But then you're going to try to gradually decrease that time. You can use a little timer or you can just talk about it. You can let them know when the time's up, but maybe every few days trying to decrease the time that you're in the room with them by five minutes or ten minutes, if they're older, I suppose. And then you can try to work yourself out of their room gradually, like maybe you've been laying down with them in the bed until they fall asleep. So maybe the first step could be just to sit up in the bed until they fall asleep and then maybe just move to the floor and sit on the floor until they fall asleep and then sit outside the door in in a chair. Because usually the separation anxiety, bedtime fears are they want you close, right. So, yeah. So like kind of working yourself out and also decreasing the amount of time gradually so that, you know, it allows them to start to learn to self soothe.

Laurie: Yeah, I love that that gradual progression. And I think that helps in general with parents that are feeling anxious about this, because there's this other piece that I notice is that parents are going to feel anxious that their kids in distress and that might be hard for them as well of, OK, I want this to end. I need to get out of this position. I need to put up a boundary. But at the same time, I feel really awful for what they're going through. And I feel like this is a great way to soothe your own anxiety of doing more separation. And it helps the kids to know, OK, Mom is saying this or Dad is saying this, and then they're going to follow through. I know that that is going to be shortened. Or I know that they're going to be outside the door and if I peek, there they are. And that helps build that trust as well. So I love that practice.

Molly: Yeah. And when you're not going to be there anymore, be honest about it. I'm not going to sit outside the door anymore. This is the night we're jumping to that, you know, and because you don't want to you don't want to tell a lie because then that can hurt the trust and say, I'm going to sit in the chair and then they pick out, you're not there, you know, then you might go backwards a step. S

Molly: And I think it's it's good to have them be part of the process and explain at an age age appropriate level. I mean, obviously, a preschooler is going to have more difficulty understanding it. But explaining, you know, I want you to be able to learn how to comfort yourself and calm yourself. And so we're going to work on that and we're going to work on it together and try to not become frustrated when they struggle because they really are struggling. I mean, this is hard for kids to to learn how to do that, especially if it hasn't. You know, they've struggled with it all along and it's been going on a long time. It's going to take a long time to get better. Yeah, but if for some reason you try all these things and it's you know, you're you're still feeling like you need more support, more help or more ideas, because, you know, these aren't going to work for everyone. I would start with maybe ruling out any health issues that might be present. I mean, if you have any concerns like that, make sure that you talk to your pediatrician first and rule out that there's any health problems that might be contributing to their difficulty falling asleep. And then there's a couple of resources I can suggest to try.

Molly: Yeah. So this is one that I've used a lot in practice. It's called What to Do When You Dread Your Bed. So it's actually a workbook and it has short chapters and some cute illustrations. And I would say that it's it would be appropriate for kids aged six to 12, six to 10 maybe. I think probably the illustrations would. I don't I'm not sure if 11 or 12 year olds would like the the child, the illustrations, but but the content would be appropriate up to 12, actually. But the chapters could be read as bedtime stories. And there's activities to do in there. And there's other ideas. And then another one and this is by Dawn Huebner, and you can buy it at Barnes and Noble or on Amazon or anything. It's only about fifteen dollars, I think. So that's a good resource. Or there's another book called Hey Warrior by Karen Young and that's good for ages five and up. And that's more just like a storybook about bedtime fears and anxiety.

Laurie: So that's awesome.

Molly: And then if you're still struggling, consider making an appointment with a therapist who specializes in children to work together.

Molly: You know, I'm available for that. We can work together. It's a process. It takes a long time. But sometimes it does help to have someone to talk to about it. And, you know, I can see children and talk to them about the fears and and do some art therapy or other kinds of therapy to to really get to the root of where the fear is coming from and then also work with parents to to come up, problem solve when when something's not working and try something different.

Laurie: Yeah, I think that part's really important too, is that if a child is struggling a lot with the bed time, trying, all these tips can be really beneficial. And then if that isn't working, it definitely reach out to Molly or another child and adolescent therapist. But the quicker the better as far as helping them through it for everyone.

Molly: So if everybody in the household is not getting any sleep, you know, I mean if everyone is is really frustrated and people are not getting enough sleep and it's really impacting the whole family, it's, you know, you may need some help. And that's OK because like we said, a third of kids really struggle with this. So, yeah. So reach out if you need some help.

Laurie: All right, great. Well, thanks, Molly, for your time there. Some really great tips. All right. And we'll talk soon, OK?

Molly: Bye bye.

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  • Child Therapist, Molly Selby MSW, LCSW, Answers How to End Bedtime Fears with your Kids