October Scaries: Sleep Avoidance, Sleep Phobia, and Nightmares for Kids

This October, we're focusing on common fears! Today's post is on every parent’s worst nightmare (just kidding - but it is up there!). Kids who can't sleep, who won't sleep, and who are just afraid of sleep.

Sleeping is crucial to our wellbeing.

When we get a full night’s rest, we’re better able to handle the challenges of our day. Our bodies are rested, our brains are active, and we’re more able to utilize our pre-frontal cortex to think through the pros and cons of how we’re interacting to the world around us.

A lack of sleep impacts everything.

We’re grumpy, we’re less focused, and we’re more stressed out. Our brains produce more stress hormones on less sleep. And a lack of sleep builds and builds - one day vs. seven days has a huge difference.

In fact, kids who don’t get enough consistent sleep can be misdiagnosed with ADHD.

They’re more prone to hyperactivity, impulsivity, and poor reasoning.

So when your child can’t sleep, or won’t sleep, you know it’s a big deal. How can you help?

By exploring what’s keeping them from sleeping. For children prone to nightmares and subsequent sleep avoidance, you have to help get them on track through behavioral planning.

Below you’ll find a basic overview of questions I ask and steps I take to assess the sleep avoidance. These can be great questions to help you form your discussion with your child before setting up the plan:

  1.  What we tell ourselves in our head can make our bodies react and can change our feelings. What do you tell yourself in your head/your brain when it’s time to go to bed?

    Ex. “My brain is saying that something bad is going to happen, like maybe there’s a tornado at night and I might not wake up in time.”

  2. What feeling does that make you have in your heart?

    “It makes me feel really scared and really sad.”

  3. What does that make your body want to do?

    “It makes me want to stay up all night or stay in your room.”

  4. Ok, it sounds like your brain is saying “this.” What else could we make our brain say that would be more helpful? (Here you can help coach your child to use logic to deal with these thoughts?)

    “I know that we haven’t had a tornado before. And would you wake me up no matter what?”

    “It makes sense to be worried about tornadoes, even though they don’t happen very often. Maybe we can come up with a plan if there is a tornado about what we would do and what steps we would take.”

For some kids, just building up these CBT skills can help.

You’ll remind them of their more helpful thoughts before bed time each night, until they’re eventually able to self-soothe and remember these calming thoughts independently.

But for other kids, their phobias run more deeply, and it’s time to consult with a therapist.

If you’ve been noticing anxiety creeping into your child outside of just bedtime, that anxiety goes beyond sleep phobia. There maybe underlying anxiety that is also impacting their time at school and waking hours at home.

You may also find out that the anxious thoughts in their mind before bed are above and beyond semi-scary monsters or a small amount of anxiety before a test. They might be worried about actual monsters, death and dying, or they may find it incredibly difficult to come up with other options for more helpful thoughts.

Regardless of these thoughts being big or small, relaxation skills will help.

Check out my mindfulness series and guided meditations for quick, easy relaxation walkthroughs. Remember that the more you practice relaxation, the bigger your window of tolerance will be - which means that small pre-bedtime anxieties will feel less overwhelming for you or your child. And you’re always welcome to reach out for support.

Curious to hear more about anxiety and sleep phobia counseling for teens and college students? Kelsey Torgerson works with kids in St. Louis to help manage their big feelings. Her office is located in Clayton, MO. You can reach her at 314-339-7640 or kelsey@compassionatecounselingstl.com

As an anxiety and anger management specialist, I provide counseling for kids, teens, and college students. I work with itty-bitties in pre-school to young adults graduating college, because I know anxiety can impact all of us, at all of these different ages. Please reach out with questions at any time!