Thursday 17 January 2019

Dear David Coleman: My eight-year-old still wants to sleep in my bed

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Photo posed
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My eight-year-old daughter stays with her mum during the week and spends most weekends with my partner and myself. She sleeps in with her mum at home, and I've tried, unsuccessfully, to get her to sleep in her own room when she comes to me. We redecorated her room and got her to pick out everything from a new bed to all the accessories and she was thrilled, still she hasn't slept in it once. I'm not sure what else to do. My partner sleeps in the spare room when my daughter stays here so that's not an issue. What can I do to help my daughter?

David replies: When I read your question in the last line of your query, I'm almost tempted to ask - 'what do you want help for your daughter with?' It isn't immediately clear to me what the problem is.

Perhaps you see it as problematic that your daughter wants to co-sleep with you? As many of my readers will be aware, I rarely consider co-sleeping to be a problem. I see it as a child's natural response to their desire to feel safe, secure and comfortable going to sleep.

It may be that your daughter has simply developed a habit of sleeping with her parent (whichever one she is staying with at the time). This might have only developed since your separation, or it may have always been her pattern.

Either way, it is worth asking, is it really a problem? And, secondarily, who is it a problem for? Children co-sleeping with their parents is rarely a problem for the child. It is usually more of an issue for their parents.

It may be that you no longer feel comfortable having her in the bed with you, as she gets older. Or, it may be that you and your partner don't like the disruption of having to sleep in separate beds when she is visiting.

Mind you, I get the impression from the way you phrase your query that your partner would be sleeping in the spare room anyway when your daughter stays, even if your daughter chose to sleep in her own room. So perhaps the disruption would be there in any event.

If you think about it from your daughter's perspective, having the comfort and security of sleeping with her parents may allow her to feel more secure generally. I am not sure how long you are separated from her mum, but it may be that sleeping with each of you allows her to regain and maintain her bond and her connection with you after being in the other parent's home.

It is worth giving this serious consideration before you put energy into changing the status quo for your daughter.

That said, if you have clarity that your daughter's sense of security is not dependent on where she sleeps, and you would like your own space, away from her at night, then you could try to wean her gently away from your bed.

Often the first step is to create her own "bed" in your room (by putting her own bed mattress on the floor in the room for example), such that she has the closeness of being with you in your room, but doesn't have the physical contact with you during the night. You may find that you have to spend a bit more time and energy in helping her to settle to sleep as she might protest about the change in night time routine.

However, if you are warm and soothing in how you introduce the change and continue to offer your presence in the room while she falls asleep, she might adjust to the new regime with comparative ease.

After she is used to sleeping close to you - but not with you - maybe consider introducing a further shift to helping her settle in her own room. Any changes, like these, need to be introduced gradually, in a phased way, with lots of warmth and empathy about the fact that these changes might feel quite disruptive for her.

But, before you embark on any changes, do ask yourself again why you might be doing this. Whose needs are you meeting? Is sleeping on her own what your daughter needs?

Having the chance to let her snuggle up to you at night is probably time-limited anyway, as she will eventually choose to have her own space. For now, it might continue to be a really effective and useful way to reconnect with her each weekend.

How can I stop my daugher apologising for herself and putting herself down?

David replies: I have an 11-year-old daughter who doesn't stop saying sorry and apologising for herself. It can be over the smallest of things, even when she isn't in the wrong, but she will always say sorry. I keep telling her not to say sorry, but at this stage I am almost afraid to correct her because she will be so hard on herself. She can be very emotional about anything and keeps putting herself down. Everyone is always better than her, or they are right and she is wrong. I worry about how she will be in secondary school; that everyone will walk all over her.

It does sound like your daughter's self-esteem is very low. I could imagine it is both very upsetting, and very frustrating, to watch her putting herself down so much and appearing to apologise for her very existence.

I am intrigued to know how this might have developed for her? Often it is something like bullying, or repeated criticism from parents or teachers. Sometimes a child's own temperament, if they are perfectionistic or overly-conscientious for example, can cause them difficulty. Sometimes changes in self-esteem are subtle and happen slowly over time such that it can be hard to pinpoint a particular time when it seemed to worsen.

However, or whenever it started for your daughter, it does seem like low self-esteem is her key problem. All of the things you describe, putting herself down, apologising for everything, seeing herself at the bottom of the social hierarchy, all suggest that her self-esteem has been eroded. I often think of self-esteem as having two main components, our sense of lovability and our sense of capability. Lovability often takes a knock when we feel excluded or not wanted by others. Capability takes more of a knock when we feel negatively compared to others, or feel we just can't compete with others' talents or skills.

It isn't clear to me from your query whether it is her sense of lovability or her sense of capability that is more affected. Perhaps it is both.

Building up our sense of lovability comes from acceptance and inclusion. This can be hard to achieve while any bullying by exclusion is happening. So, if you are aware that might be an issue for her, try to resolve it by talking with other adults that might be able to influence the social situation she finds herself in.

Be very clear, then, in your own interactions with her that you love her and accept her. That might mean holding back on your frustration with how negatively she sees herself. It might also mean showing lots of empathy and understanding to her. Ensuring she has opportunities to play with friends who like her and want to be in her company will also help.

Building up her sense of capability involves a range of different things. To start, you can help her to identify her strengths and abilities. What does she feel she is good at doing, or enjoys doing, where she gets positive feedback from other people?

It can be a powerful experience for a child to be helped to list all of the good things about themselves. That might include helping them to realise all of their positive personal qualities like kindness, generosity, loyalty, thoughtfulness and so on.

Whilst focused on her strengths, however, don't just focus on her achievements and her successes. Try to notice also, her effort and commitment to things too. Working hard is just as valuable as what is produced by that hard work.

Be careful to avoid criticising her and help her to see her mistakes as an opportunity to learn rather than a reason to be punished. How you phrase things is very important here. At the moment she seems to punish herself wherever she perceives failure. So, your ability to acknowledge and accept her imperfection without criticism may help.

Try also to give her opportunities to help as this can make her feel valuable and useful. Where possible, allow her to make her own choices and encourage her to solve her own problems rather than rushing in to fix everything for her.

Building self-esteem can take time and patience, but it sounds like it is exactly what she needs.



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