August 7, 2023
Mary: When Your Kid’s Worries Disrupt Bedtime
In today’s episode, Mary shares how her 4 year old son, Oliver seems to be struggling after the loss of his infant cousin.
Oliver began to show signs of regression with bedtime during which he seems to experience high anxiety and fears. Sleep regression is normal and very understandable when dealing with something as big as death. Mary explains how Oliver is most open and communicative at bedtime. While it may seem intuitive to re-enforce this behavior so that Oliver continues to open up at bedtime, it’s actually important to not keep reinforcing the behavior of doing this right before sleep. Instead, keep the intention to connect to your child, but change the time and place for it.
7:35 Regression in your child’s sleep is normal when dealing with difficult times
11:40 Common for kids to open up most around bedtime. Parenting can feel counterintuitive to stop your child from expressing themselves at bedtime and switch that openness to a different time of the day.
16:40 The worry box or the worry tree
26:03 Bedtime techniques/mindfulness practices
Leslie-ism: Help your child to understand: feelings come and feelings go.
Here are two books mentioned in this episode.
Starbright: Meditations for Children by Maureen Garth
Jibberwillies at Night by RachelVail (Author) and Yumi Heo (Illustrator)
Credits: Is My Child a Monster is produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Theme music is by L-Ray Music. Public relations is handled by Tink Media. Graphics and Website Design by Brien O’Reilly. by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible.
TRANSCRIPT OF SHOW:
[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]
0:02 Mary: I understand it’s a process that he has to go through and I can’t change that for him. But I also wonder what can he comprehend and what’s too much.
0:23 Leslie Cohen-Rubury: This is,Is My Child A Monster?, a parenting therapy podcast where you get to listen in as real parents and caregivers share their trials and tribulations in therapy sessions recorded live. I’m your host, Leslie Cohen-Rubury; and I’m a parent and a therapist with 37 years of experience helping families navigate this question.
Before I introduce this episode, I want to give everyone a heads-up that today we touch on a topic that may be hard for some listeners. This episode briefly mentions infant loss. But the bulk of the episode focuses on sleep struggles and how to approach those big worries with a small child. If this is not something you’re in a space to listen to, please take care of yourself. Stop listening now, and join us next week, where we will meet a new family.
Okay, so today’s guest is Mary, whose son is Oliver. He’s four years old, and he’s struggling with sleep. The family recently experienced a tremendous loss—Mary’s sister had a baby who spent 10 weeks in the NICU before passing away. During that time, Mary did whatever she could to help Oliver understand what was happening. Together, they made cards, said prayers, and cooked food. Now, three months after her nephew’s death, Mary has noticed Oliver’s sleeping pattern has regressed.
And I do want to let you know that I spent time with Mary before our recording, listening to her grief and how it’s impacting her and her family. However, in this recorded session, we explore how Mary can support her son to reestablish healthy sleep habits. And as a reminder, all the names and identifying information have been changed. This show is for informational purposes only, and not a substitute for therapeutic intervention. So let’s meet Mary.
Leslie: Hi, Mary, I’m going to let you start.
2:37 Mary: Thank you. We have been noticing with Oliver, who’s just turned four, there’s been a lot of challenge for him to fall asleep on his own, a lot of challenge for him to stay in his bed through the night without coming in. And sometimes it’s like you get the sense that he’s just woken up from a nightmare and kind of can go right back. And then there’s some times where he’s, “I’m scared, I’m scared,” a lot around falling asleep initially—that’s the words that he says and he wants someone to stay in his room until he falls asleep or someone to sit outside his door before he falls asleep.
And also we are coming up to this memorial and I haven’t shared with him, there’s going to be this day that you’re going to be with the babysitter and Momma and Poppa are going. And so I’m sensing just a very…a lot of sensitivity, a lot of fear, maybe a thing shifting. During this whole period, it’s been very obvious that he’s processing a lot of what has happened, especially at bedtime, is when things get spoken, like he’ll say my nephew’s name. He’ll ask about my nephew—is he in the hospital or how many weeks or is he coming home or… And I say, “Well, his body wasn’t strong enough to survive.” And he’s, “Well, I’m strong and healthy,” and really just not even when we’re not really talking about it; a lot but it just kind of comes through him.
So I’m feeling that these two things are interconnected for him. And he’ll say things like, “I’m never going to let you go,” or, “I’m never going to lose you,” or something like this. I’ve read that kind of around this age is also when they start to process and understand death, but he has this real experience now to process. And because he’s so sensitive, I want to be mindful of how I share this day and continue to be mindful around the messaging I can give him in support and reassurance I can give him. But also, our approach has been very real, and just been sharing the process with him as it has happened.
My nephew was in the NICU for 10 weeks. So he prayed with us, he asked about my nephew during that time, he sent video messages to my sister. And so, just really have lived with it in real time. So, yeah, I’m just…it’s definitely feeling like a very sensitive time for him and for us, and we could really use some better sleep. This is definitely the concrete thing where it’s like, wowee, you know, we can’t spend two hours putting him to sleep at night. That’s just a lot for us. It makes him runned down also. So we know it’s not the best for his health. So yeah, I think that’s where we’re at. That’s where we’re wanting, I’m wanting more, more attention, more care around, maybe more refinement, and support and how I can support Oliver.
5:58 Leslie: Would you talk a little bit more about the change—you sort of mentioned it, but—the change in what he was doing, what he is doing in terms of sleep. So what was his sleep like, prior to this loss? And even the nephew being born and being in the NICU.
6:20 Mary: Oliver’s been a very good, easy-to-sleep kid. Usually, one of us goes in and then the other one goes in and we’ve had our “See you and our dreams,” “See you in the morning,” that kind of thing. And then maybe there’s a run out the door once, but not something where it’s happening over the course of an hour or two hours every night. I really get the sense that that was more of a boundary-pushing and like aha ha. And this is more emotional, more scared, “I need you.” We’re working on some breathing, getting him to breathe deeper, but you can feel the panic in his body, in his breath when I say, “Okay, good night,” that kind of thing. It’s much more needing closer connection and attachment.
7:14 Leslie: Mm hmm. Okay. So clearly there is a change in what-it-was to what-it-is. And the first thing that I’m…sort of popping up in my mind is, this is a very specific emotional situation that is heightened—it’s heightened emotions, right? And what we know with situations and emotions: emotions come, emotions go. So one of the things that I think is important to know, and as a reminder for you, but also maybe for him, is the regression in sleep where the change in sleep is normal. Like, we don’t have a problem here, we have someone who was responding, and in fairly justified, understandable ways. Like you just said, needing more attachment. Well, when something scary, yes, attachment is what makes us feel secure.
So what he’s doing is normal, and understandable. And we’re going to give him that message. It makes sense. There’s a phrase I like to say: It makes sense that you need or want Mommy to stay with you longer, it makes sense that you’re getting up during the night to make sure everything’s okay. And this is going to pass. So that part I’m not as concerned about, I just want to make sure you are aware that this is a regression, but some people think, oh, no, here we go, this is going to be a problem. It’s short term, chances are very good, chances are that it’s short term.
And at the same time, we know he’s highly sensitive. So this is now new in his world. I want to ask a little bit more about what are your expectations for what you would like from him in this process?
Mary: Of sleep?
Leslie: Yeah,what’s your expectation? Like, “I want to go back to exactly the way it was,” or yeah, what are your expectations, and also how he’s going to process such big emotions?
9:17 Mary: Well, I think the sleep is easier to respond to because we would like him to sleep through the night, back into sleeping through the night because that feels like that’s a family need. And I don’t mind giving him the extra attention. But then my patience and our patience, if it goes over an hour or something, well, then that’s not really fitting in with what we need. Nor what his body needs, which is really, it’s time to go to bed, you need that energy to get through your day. So I think it’s the length of the time that it sometimes can take—that’s what we would like to cut out and try to reinforce sleep through the whole night and to get your body healthy and strong for the day, for all of us. So that’s clear, because it’s concrete.
How he processes his emotions… I’m very happy that he’s communicating. But it kind of comes out of nowhere. So I’m often, you know, like, asked my husband, did you talk about my nephews? No, because Oliver, at bedtime will often…that’s the tender time. I sense that that’s the tender time for Oliver, where he sort of reveals things that happen at school that are upsetting or sensitive to him. And also, that’s when I get these windows into how aware and attuned and highly sensitive Oliver is at these moments. So I enjoy having an open channel. He tells me things he does at school that he gets in trouble for—he’s pretty open.
So I’m happy for that. And I don’t want him to fret, of course. I understand it’s a process that he has to go through. And I, we all are going through, and I can’t change that for him. But I also wonder, what can he comprehend? And what’s too much? And what messaging can I send him that will reassure him that we’re safe, and we’re healthy, and we’re happy?
11:33 Leslie: Beautiful, I’m going to jump in right there. Because you want to reassure him. Parenting is not always intuitive. So you’re connecting to him. Makes sense at bedtime, where he’s opening up, that’s a common time for children. As they’re going to sleep, all these things pop into their mind—their worries, their concerns, their questions. And so this is not uncommon that children can go on and on and on. So what’s counterintuitive is, you said so yourself, it feels good that he is opening up and you want to actually reinforce that he has someone to talk to, that he’s safe to talk. So your intuition’s saying, “Yeah, if he’s talking, I should listen”—here’s the tricky part. That is not the time to open those doors, because then we’re reinforcing this idea that you should interrupt your sleep so that you can feel safe. And so this is a behavioral change.
And we can address both needs. This is a dialectic, we can make sure we feel attached, he feels attached, we can make sure he feels heard. And we can reinforce the idea that this is their bed time for bed. And there’s another time in place for us to talk about this.
So what my idea is, is to first point out, your intentions are beautiful to connect, to get him to talk, to open up, to make him emotionally intelligent. All those things are beautiful. And we’re going to change the time and place for that; because your unintended message is that as long as he keeps talking, he’s saying, “I’m not safe. I’m not safe. I’m not safe,” by your continued conversation. You’re reinforcing that message. Because he’s going to bed feeling,”I’m scared Mommy, I’m scared. I’m, I’m…” And so you stay with him and say, “Yeah, you are scared, you have something to be worried about.” I know that’s not your message–intended message. But that’s the unintended consequence of staying there talking about it on and on and on. And as you know, it’s not working for you or for him—it’s going on longer. So let’s look at how we change that and at the same time still address that need to be assured, reassured, and connected. Parents are so smart. It’s just that sometimes that in-the-moment connection and that in-the-moment emotion of, “He’s hurting, I need to stay here.” The emotion is sort of driving your decision, rather than what might be helpful to him.
[Music: Nature Calls by Olexy]
14:20 Dale Rubury: Hi, I’m Dale Rubury, a producer and occasional guest onIs My Child A Monster? And we’re looking for parents and caregivers to feature on Season 2. We’d love to hear from all kinds of families with kids between the ages of 4 and 18. There’s no problem too big or too small. So if you’d like to volunteer for some free parenting therapy, and are comfortable sharing your sessions publicly—with all names changed, of course—please visit ismychildamonster.com to apply.
14:52 Leslie: So do you have any ideas now that you’re sitting here today?
14:56 Mary: I could see trying to make quiet time, which is why I’m slowing down because finding quiet time or still time is not something that is that available as a four year old for Oliver. They’re very much on the go or busy, busy, busy busy. So trying to find some quiet time where he can talk with us could be something. You know, sometimes after school, we can go get an ice pop or something like that. So maybe trying to make a ritual out of it. And that time to, I guess, that would be my question: When I probe, would I directly make that time to talk about his cousin’s passing? Or would that…just how to cultivate that dialogue. Or something? Or if it would just be? Yeah…
15:56 Leslie: Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Yes, we need space for it and bedtime, literally, that’s what you’re doing one hour, two hours, you’re giving him time and space for that. Andbusy, busy, busy doesn’t give us time and space for that. It’s understandable that he’s going to focus on the here and now. And he’s got games, and he’s got toys, and he’s got friends, and he’s got activities. And so what we end up learning as adult is, if we keep ourselves busy, we don’t have to feel our emotions. So that makes sense, that we want to change that pattern. And we want to, as parents, give him the structure.
So now let’s connect. You said’ “Do I need to probe, do I need to bring it up?” Well, here’s what the framework I want to create. When he goes to bed, that is the time when the emotions show up. I have talked, I think, in the previous times, about a worry box, or you can make it appropriate worry box may be great for a nine year old, a 12 year old…maybe for him, we make a little worry tree. Actually I do that with my grandson. He has a lot of sensitivity. So we have a worry tree before…I do a visualization when I put my grandson to bed, and we go to the worry tree and the worry tree holds our worries for us. So we go on this adventure, and we come back and the worries are there. And we named the worries.
So when you name the worries, you now say in the next day or when you have some quiet time, “Hey, you know, at the worry tree you left worry about your cousin, you had to worry about Mommy and Daddy, you had to worry about your strong body.” And so you’re going to have to name the worries for him, because he may not be able to put…he’s stating them. And then you say, “They’re at the worry tree. And tomorrow when we have…when we’re drawing, when we’re taking that walk, I’ll come back to the worry tree. And we’ll talk about it.” So you’re making a clear behavioral framework for him that there’s a time and place to bring up and sit with our emotions. And then you send him the added message of, “You’re safe. You’re secure. It’s time for bed.” Because he has these uncomfortable, sad, scary feelings, he is judging he is not safe. You’re saying, “Let’s name what those scary and sad feelings are. Put them on the worry tree, put them down. You get to do your job right now, which is: go to sleep. I’ll hold on to the worries or the worry tree will hold the worries. And we’ll come back to those tomorrow when we have time. And we can look and talk about those things.” He’s not going to love the idea of talking about it tomorrow, but he will love the idea of putting them down and coming back.
18:59 Mary: We’re making a tree?
19:00 Leslie: I think so. I think children, four year old children…I think it’s great for, actually I never stopped, I used to believe for my special ed training that children need the tangible, concrete behaviors that help them process things. I’m telling you, I do it with adults, I would make the same tree for the adults and say, “Put the sticky note on the wall.” A worry box—I I cut a piece of paper and have children write it down. In this case, it could be a Post-it note in a worry tree.
And it was such a sweet story when I was doing a parenting group once. The mother went and did this and she came back and she said, “I put the worries in the worry box and then I told my daughter that I would take the worry box out of her room. And the daughter got really upset, said, ‘No Don’t take my worry box away.’” She was fine putting them down but she wasn’t fine having someone take them away. That’s good. It’s teaching us, which is a skill we all need. If I go to work, I have to put my worries down. And I want to come back to them, which is the other message you’re going to send is, “Hey, you had that on the worry tree, is that something?” Sometimes you give him your respect and if he doesn’t want to talk about it, that’s okay. But other times you are going to bring it up. It’s not going to be quite the same conversation because he may not feel the scariness and the sadness that he feels at nighttime. But what you’re teaching him is that those emotions come and go. He might not need to talk about them. You’re sending a very loud and clear message: You’re safe to go to bed. The more you talk, the quieter that message is.
20:38 Mary: It’s interesting because I got a book from the library. That’s what I feel like books…it’s very good for all of us to connect to characters and we can use the book to talk about the character. But we didn’t do it all the way as you’re saying, but it was like theJibber Willies—it was called the Jibber Willies— and pretend to put…we put all the Jibber Willies in the box, and then I throw it out the window. And sometimes I open the window and throw it out the window. There was no dialogue around what that was or what were the Jibber Willies. It was kind of just like a benign sort of put-the-Jibber Willies.
So what’s interesting is you’re trying to take it further. And then tonight, maybe I just supposed I mimicked what they did in the story. You know, we just started, that’s kind of what my thinking was like, “Oh, maybe that. That’s what that parent did.” And that book was just, you know, put them out the window to let them know that the child was safe in the story. So yeah, so sometimes I go to that; I’m like, Okay, let’s put the Jibber Willies. So maybe there’s something I can use off of that story like a Jibber Willy tree or something?
21:52 Leslie: Absolutely. I love it. And let’s say yes to both. Yes, that sometimes it doesn’t need more conversation than just say, it’s aJibber Willy. Because what you’re doing is you’re letting your child know that it’s an emotion. Sometimes all I want to do is, “I noticed I’m feeling scared. I don’t need to process it all the time. I can sit with feeling scared,” because feelings, we want to teach our children, come and feelings go. And if we talk about it, we’re actually attaching to the feeling and making more of it. So it’s not a which-is-better. It’s: they’re both important. There’s a time to talk about the emotion, understand it, unpack it,, really allow the child to have that opportunity, for you to teach them; and there’s a time when it’s just a Jibber Willy. “Oh, you got the Jibber Willy? Is it in your back pocket, in your front pocket? Do you want to take a moment to stop? Do you want to keep going? Just acknowledge we can have emotions, and be okay. So I don’t know about the Jibber Willies, but I love it. So beautiful. Go to the library, look for books. You can also expand it to…you don’t have to keep the focus just on your nephew. You can keep the focus on “Oh, remember when you lost that toy?” That’s perfectly fine. “Oh, right, I lost that toy. I’m okay, Mommy, I don’t have that toy anymore.”
But you know, if he’s had his own personal experiences, that he has gone through anxiety, where it’s like, “I’m sad, and I got over it.” So sometimes the best way to help a child with something big is to actually make it concrete and personal in his life. So that he can see: “I was sad. I was scared. I had those feelings. They went away.” Can you think of a time when he was scared that you can use for him? The books are great. And his own personal experience is great.
23:56 Mary: I think just starting preschool this year was a big hurdle for him, that he can go back, and now he feels like he’s king of the castle.
24:04 Leslie: Excellent. That’s called building mastery. And he has the experience that he did something difficult, and he did it. Refer to that: “This is difficult. And we’re going to do it.” It doesn’t have to be so zoomed into this is the death of your nephew. That is a lot for him. A lot for all of you. My heart goes out to all of you. And this is where we modulate what he has to deal with. And that’s the connection—that he was scared. And those feelings? Those feelings were there. They were real. And now they have passed. So that’s another great way.
And then the third thing that’s just popping in my mind when talking about books is maybe help him make a book about it. And you can say, “We’re going to this memorial—can I bring the book with me? Can I share this book with your aunt? Can I share this book?” And it may not be what he wants. But a book might be something and again, he colors it, he writes it, you scribe it. These are just ideas. There’s not one and only one idea. There’s so many ideas out there. But you can make a book about his going to school. And then it’s like, “Oh, this is another chapter in that book.” For some children who like to draw or tell a story, I would make it concrete.
Another metaphor that you said, he’s on the go a lot, you said he’s got big emotions. Highly sensitive. Have you used any metaphors, because you were talking about getting him in his body at bedtime, when he’s just trying to breathe, listen to sounds—kids like that. That is what I would go back and focus on at bedtime. After you do your Jibber Willy, then the tree and all those things, then you’re going to need some practice. Go back to your rituals—”My turn to say good night, Daddy’s turn,”— all those things. And maybe add a little ritual right now of, “Let’s listen to sounds.” And maybe you change the sound, if there’s a sound machine that he would like to listen to…an ocean, the forest, the birds or things like that. Or maybe he can hear the sounds around him, and see if he can help him quiet his body.
You’re trying to figure out how to get him back to going to sleep on his own. There are some options here, I would say there’s the worry tree, so you stop talking. And then there’s going to be a time he’s going to want to keep talking. And you want to say, “This is a time when you can keep talking,” give him permission to keep talking, “I am going to stay quiet, while you do your work of putting yourself to bed. I’m going to read my book, I’m going to sit here.” Now, for the sake of—his is a heightened time—you might stay in his room. But that time will reduce if instead you can start by staying in his bed, but stop the talking, then sit on the floor next to him. Stop talking but move away and read your books. So he’s clear that you’re there, you’re giving a message loud and clear: “You’re safe, you’re secure.” And at the same time, you’re asking him to do what is required, which is, “This is your time to practice going to bed.”
So you can’t stop him from talking. So I wouldn’t try to fight him on that. But you can stop yourself from talking. And nobody…people get bored, people get very bored. If you stop talking, they’re like, “Alright, I guess that person is not interested.” It’s not that you’re not interested. It’s that this is not the time and place. And you might remind them, “Hey, we’re going to talk about that tomorrow.” Be a broken record. “I really look forward to hearing more about that tomorrow.” So you’re validating it. “That’s important for us to talk about, we’ll talk about it tomorrow.” He probably won’t bring it up because it’s really, “I’m just dealing with my anxiety, my scared feelings right now.” And once that passes, he doesn’t have a need to bring it up. So don’t be surprised if he doesn’t bring up the things that are on that worry tree.
28:20 Mary: Yeah, I think he’s going to respond to that.
28:25 Leslie: The hope is that you can feel refreshed; that you’re like, “Okay, good. I see an end in sight, that this is not going to go one hour, two hours, three hours.”
28:34 Mary: Yeah, I’ve been sort of in the same, like, of the thinking of, okay, we need to shift the routine and start anew and reset boundaries. I’m thinking just how it happens with his sleep, like, okay, something is different. So we have to adjust a little, my husband and myself get on the same page, and reestablish boundaries in some way. So I feel this is a nice way of doing that, but also creating the space for the feelings to happen and the time for the feelings to happen. And he will…yeah, Oliver will definitely take to this
29:14 Leslie: Beautiful Yeah, I just wish you well—this is a hard time. Remember, you’re dealing with big emotions yourself. And parenting is counterintuitive. So as you were trying to make him feel more secure, we’re actually going to validate it and put limits on big emotions that can try to take over.
[Music: Forest of Dreams by Olexy]
Leslie: I want to thank Mary for her curiosity and willingness to try new things and for choosing to share her story with a community of caregivers who are listening. It’s clear Mary is a caring and wise parent who inadvertently exacerbated her son’s sleep issues. Bedtime routines are so important for healthy sleep habits, and letting the routine stretch longer and longer is more harmful than helpful. And that’s not at all uncommon. By talking through his worries and fears, Mary unintentionally extended the amount of time it took Oliver to wind down and reinforce the pattern of an hour’s long bedtime routine. You can validate your child’s worries and separate those conversations from the bedtime routine. There’s a time and a place to sit with your emotions. And you don’t want it to disrupt or prevent sleep.
Developing a method for setting aside your child’s worries can create a safe environment for falling asleep, and can help make bedtime more effective. You can revisit, acknowledge and have a talk about those worries the next day. And that’s just what she did. I recently spoke with Mary to get an update. Oliver is back to his old sleeping routine. And that’s good news for everyone. Mary shared that getting away from talking about his worries and those scary things at the end of the night was an excellent strategy. Making space for worries during the day got things back in balance.
She also shared that Oliver used the worry box when he needed it, and that he didn’t need it for very long. Use a tool as long as it’s useful. Just because we talk about these tools doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time. Think about the hammer, you use it when you need it. Same for these tools. In our follow-up conversation, Mary also sounded and expressed a greater level of confidence about setting limits with her son, especially at bedtime. Once you understand what’s happening, it does give you the confidence as a parent to set limits that help your child. I think many, many parents come to therapy for that very reason. So if you want more resources on how to talk to your child about big worries, including grief, check out our show notes. We regularly include helpful links, resources, readings, and more. And I invite you to share your questions and thoughts in our Facebook parenting community. You can also find a link to that in our show notes.
[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]
Join us next week to meet Zach and Sarah, a divorced couple looking for help motivating their withdrawn and irritable teenage son. Subscribe to Is My Child A Monster? wherever you get your podcasts, so you don’t miss an episode. And if you like what you hear, please rate and review on Apple podcasts. You can find a full transcript of this episode, resources, or apply to be a guest on Season 2 by visiting ismychildamonster.com. This episode was produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and me. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music. I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for listening. And this week, help your child to understand: Feelings come and feelings go
Transcribed by https://otter.ai edited by Eric Rubury