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Family Life: How can I make my 12-year-old feel safe in her own bedroom?

I have a 12-year-old daughter who still has to go asleep on the couch as she is too afraid to go asleep in her own bed.

Her younger sister shares the room with her, so she's not on her own. I'm trying at the moment to get her to sleep in her bed but I have to stay in the room with her. She could still be awake an hour later and would end up coming back downstairs to go asleep on the couch.

Generally she doesn't want to go on her own to another room in the house without somebody else with her. She says she's scared that somebody else is in the house and I always reassure her that there's nothing to be afraid of. She is a very happy child otherwise; she likes school and has good friends. I would appreciate any help you could give on the problem.

It sounds to me as if the issue is less to do with fear and more to do with wanting company. It sounds like she just likes to be with you and be part of what you are doing at night time.

I am guessing that by the time her bedtime comes it is probably quite warm, cosy and convivial in the living-room. No doubt the television is on in the background and she just doesn't want this lovely comfortable bubble to be 'burst' by having to go up to bed.

Don't forget that since she shares a room and a bed with her sister, she can't really justify her claims that she is frightened to be on her own. Indeed, because she shares the room she never has to be on her own.

This is why it strikes me that she could just want to spend a bit more time with you. I think it is fine to empathise with her worries and to reassure her that there is nothing to fear. However, I think you need to get a bit tougher about insisting that she stay in her own bed once bedtime comes.

As things stand at the moment (and looking at things from her point of view) she has no good reason to stay in her bed. While you might want her to be in bed, you don't seem to enforce it.

She knows well by this stage that, if she complains enough of being afraid, you will give in to her and let her come down to the sofa. Or alternatively, after about an hour of sitting with her you probably get so frustrated that you give up trying to keep her in her bed and she, again, will have a free pass to come downstairs.

So, at the moment, if she really wants to be on the sofa she can get there any night she wants.

To counteract the habit that she has developed you need to be determined! You need to be determined that her bed is the best place for her to sleep. You need to be determined that you will stick with your plan to get and keep her there. And you need to be determined that you will make your plan work.

I'd suggest that, with your determination in place, you adopt a plan like this:

  • Tell her the new, absolute, rule that she must stay in her own bed every night. (So that she realises it is non-negotiable.)
  • Explain to her that you will help her to stick to the new rule. (So that she doesn't feel abandoned.)
  • Reassure her that if she feels frightened you will be with her regularly to help her reduce her anxiety. (So that she can't use the 'fear' argument to get around you.)
  • Let her know that rather than staying with her in the room, you will set up a regular visiting pattern with her, one that she can rely upon. (So that you don't have to be beside her for ages and ages.)
  • Let her know that once she goes to bed you will visit her to check on her every three minutes. (Set a timer for yourself to ensure you stick to the schedule.)
  • Explain that when you visit her you will give her a quick stroke on the head, or even a cuddle, but that you won't be lingering. (So that you don't get stuck in long drawn-out discussions designed to keep you with her.)
  • Advise her, however, that your visiting her is conditional upon her staying in her room. (So that she learns that if she really wants to have your company while falling asleep then the most effective way will be to stay in bed.)

She might find it hard, at first, to get used to the new way bedtimes are run; this means she might put up real resistance for a while to the new routine. Don't worry if she seems to be even more unsettled for a couple of weeks. She will (consciously or unconsciously) be testing you to see if you really mean to stick with your plan.

As she becomes more settled with being in bed you can increase the spacing between your visits. You lengthen it out in gradual stages once she seems to cope each time with the longer time gap.

Taking this gradual approach means that you might invest a couple of months in gradually weaning her off the need to have you even visit at all. However, you will then have the massive reward of having that bit more time to yourself at night.

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