Dear David Coleman: Our son won't sleep alone. Any ideas?
Question: In the last few months my 12-year- old son has developed anxiety trying to go to sleep. He says that he gets worried that we will all be asleep and he will be left the only one awake on his own and that he can feel the worry in his stomach. He sleeps fine if me or my husband sleep with him (which we do to make sure we all get a night's sleep). In general he would be a bit of a worrier and likes to have routine in the mornings and the evenings. Any advice?
David replies: Whenever I hear about an issue, that was never a problem previously, developing over a period of time for a child, I am always intrigued to know what might have been happening in the child's life at the time the issue began. Often, but not always, we discover that there was a trigger incident, or experience, that a child had that led them to change their behaviour or attitude.
So, I could imagine that something has happened in your son's life in the last few months, or a few months ago, that may have led him to feel insecure or anxious. Whatever happened to him left him much more conscious of being separate from you and the security that you provide him. You describe him as "a bit of a worrier" and this may predispose him to being disturbed by an event that you and others may have paid little heed to.
It is interesting, for example, that when you sleep with him (offering him maximum security and safety) he is able to get a good night's sleep, both falling asleep quickly and sleeping through the night without disruption. This too supports the idea that something in his life may feel off-kilter, or that he feels at greater risk in some way.
It may be that he is having some issue in school (since that began again, after the holidays, a few months ago). Perhaps he is nervous of his current teacher, or there has been a change in the dynamic of the class and his relationships with his friends? Perhaps there was a change in your family circumstance in the last while? For example, it may be something like a change in parent(s) jobs, or a shift in the routine due to new work or school timetables, or moving house, or house renovations, or somebody sick.
Your starting position with your son, then, is to acknowledge and validate his greater sense of insecurity and the rise in his anxiety, since these are most likely to be associated with his disrupted sleep. If you can identify a significant change then it is worth helping him to make the link between his feelings and this event. It might also allow you to reassure him that things (including his sleep) will settle over time, as he adapts to the change.
Some of his security can be increased by your belief in him and his ability to cope at night. Both you and he need to remember that he slept well before and so that suggests that he can sleep well in the future too.
Offering your presence at night might be an okay short-term strategy, but you do need to wean him off a dependency on you being with him.
Weaning can be done in stages, where you initially move out of his bed, but maybe continue being in his room while he settles, but not staying while he sleeps. Then you can withdraw further in stages, until you are simply coming to check on him occasionally as he settles himself to sleep.
Each stage is moved through slowly and gently, so that your son gets time to settle into the new arrangements each time. This process, allied to a greater understanding (and maybe even a resolution) of the original trigger to his insecurity, offers him the best chance of learning how to soothe himself back to sleep.
Health & Living