My seven-year-old daughter is a very happy girl but I feel she can be anxious. My wife has to rub her head every night until she falls asleep. If I am home with her she wants me to sit in the living room until she falls asleep. Before she falls asleep she will call out to me to make sure I am in the living room. Any thoughts or suggestions?
You sound like a loving dad and I hear your concern. There are two different things that could be going on.
It could be that your daughter wants to be sure that she is still connected to you. It is hard for our children to separate from us. We have the lucky distinction of still being their favourite people. Their connection with us and to us is what makes them feel safe and grounded. This is often why going to bed and getting out the door in the morning are such difficult transitions for children. They don’t want to be away from us. Bedtime can feel like a great chasm of separation. As long as your wife is rubbing her head, or she knows you are a room away, she feels that sense of connection.
If you think her bedtime needs are more connection driven, try building a figurative “bridge” of connection between her and you at night. Vancouver psychologists Gordon Neufeld and Deborah MacNamara call this “bridging the separation” between you. You can tell her you will check on her every 5 minutes (or 2 at first). You can give her 50 kisses to tuck under her pillow. You can tell her she will be able to hear you doing the dishes or watching television. You can give her something of yours to sleep with that has your scent. You can lay an invisible string between you. In fact, there is a wonderful children’s book called The Invisible String. To feel safe and secure and connected, she needs to know you are still there even when you are out of sight.
The other possibility is that your daughter is experiencing physiological anxiety: Her amygdala, the fight-flight-freeze part of her brain that is responsible for keeping her safe, could be activated. Being alone in her room might feel like an emergency. Her amygdala may be sending the message, “Danger! Danger! You need mom to stay in the room with you! You need to be 100 per cent sure that dad is right outside your door! Otherwise, you won’t be safe!” The amygdala can’t tell the difference between a real emergency or a perceived one. It is like a smoke alarm that goes off whether you burn toast or there is a big fire in your kitchen. Her amygdala may be sensing a threat where there is none and sending out a 911 call.
If you see signs of anxiety in other areas of her life, her needs at bedtime may be due to an overly sensitive amygdala. Does she have a hard time saying goodbye at school? Are changes in routine unusually difficult? Is she okay to be alone in her room at other times?
If you do think she is generally anxious, here’s what you can do. First, teach her about how her brain’s emergency response system works. The toaster analogy is a great one that kids really understand. When she starts to feel worried about being alone when she’s falling asleep, teach her to talk back to her amygdala and tell it there is no emergency. This is to calm her mind. She can also use some strategies like taking some long, slow, belly breaths to calm her body. For more details, check out my favourite resources: the book Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents by Lynn Lyons and Reid Wilson, and the website HeySigmund.com. These are tools that will help her for life. A note: If you feel your daughter’s anxiety is more than you can help her with, or it is interfering with your lives, please consult your family doctor.
Whether it is anxiety, looking for more connection, or both, I think these strategies used together will help her fall asleep more easily. Try not to worry. Seven is still very small and it’s okay that she still needs you.
Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, ages 12, 15 and 18.
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