Dear David Coleman: My eight-year-old is really clingy and he sleeps badly
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q For the past two months, my eight-year-old boy is finding it hard to get to sleep at night. He's up and down the stairs, complaining and crying that he's afraid, that he hears noises and thinks someone is in house. We try to reassure him but it doesn't seem to help. I checked with school and all seems to be well, although he doesn't particularly like his teacher. He says nothing is bothering him. It feels like it an attention seeking thing at times and at others he seems genuinely terrified. He is a bit more clingy to me generally. How can I help him settle?
A Childhood anxiety can be a fickle thing! Some children fly through their childhoods, unscathed, while others experience short, or longer, periods of specific or more general anxiety.
There isn't always a way of predicting which children might suffer from anxiety, although the chances of a child being anxious are increased if either, or both, parents tend to be anxious. Children do pick up on their parents' anxieties and this can create, or add to, a child's anxiety.
Some of the time we may be tempted to write off children's anxieties as irrational or so unlikely to happen as being unworthy of consideration. But, even if they are irrational, they will feel real to your child.
Also, children's fears aren't always irrational and sometimes their anxiety is a direct response to a frightening event or experience.
Whatever the source of their children's anxiety, it can be very frustrating for parents to feel that their reassurances are being ignored. Your experience, that your reassurances are not helping your son, is quite common.
I think the fact that your son is a bit more clingy, in general, over the last while might be the key to understanding what he needs right now.
His clinginess suggests that he is feeling insecure in some way. It makes good sense that any insecurity he feels will translate into sleeping problems, since we need to feel secure and comfortable in order to be able to fall asleep.
If he feels insecure in some way, then it also makes sense that he would try to have you close to hand (acting clingy) in order to have your physical and emotional support to be able to feel more secure.
It might be difficult for him, at his age, to describe this insecurity and how it is affecting him. So, perhaps his descriptions of things that worry him, or frighten him, is his way of trying to articulate his experience.
Any significant change in a child's life can lead to a short-term insecurity. If he doesn't like his teacher it might be worth trying to understand why? Perhaps there is something about him or her that upsets your son, or leaves him on edge.
Maybe he just doesn't feel he can fully predict how his teacher is going to act, or interact with him, on a given day. Maybe the class dynamic is different.
Feeling a bit unsettled at school could easily be behind disrupted sleep and new found fears or anxieties.
Irrespective of the cause of his insecurity, I think your best approach to your son is to increase the level of security, predictability and reliability that you can offer to him. Increasing these things might only be a short-term need for him and so you can wean him off any higher levels of emotional or physical support in due course.
For now, though, perhaps offer to sit in his room while he falls asleep, or even let him sleep in your room.
Or you could also set up regular "checking" visits every five minutes. This will minimise his need to get up and come down to you and so offers him the best possible chance of being able to relax in his bed and let sleep come to him. Similarly, when he comes looking for you to be close to him, or to go with him to do things that he used to do alone, I'd suggest that you allow him that closeness. For whatever reason, he seems to need it just now.
Be wary of pushing him away, or suggesting to him that he "should" be able to cope without you.
Even if it is an inconvenience to you, for now, it is likely to be a short-term thing. You may find that once the summer holidays come that he perks up again and his old confidence and security returns.
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