How young children learn to protect themselves

Every day brings new reports of adults in some position of responsibility who take advantage of the trust that children place in them.

All of us have to worry about our children’s safety, and it’s easy to wonder what we should be doing to safeguard them from predators.

Parents of school-age children can talk about the importance of speaking up whenever anything feels uncomfortable. Parents of adolescents can talk even more directly with them about sexual assualt.

However, dealing with the issue of self-protection with preschool children is very different.

We want to caution parents against scaring or confusing very young children with lectures about not speaking to strangers, or protecting themselves against improper advances from anyone other than Mommy, Daddy or grandparents.

These messages can be utterly confusing to little children. It can be scary and upsetting, and can cause them to overreact in many ways.

For instance, they can become afraid of going to sleep, of the dark, of speaking to anyone. They can become overly excited and engage in mutual sexual play; or pretend to go looking for imaginary molesters, which shows that they are acting out what they are trying to understand.

Needing to protect oneself is a big responsibility that young children cannot possibly take on by themselves. We must be with them at all times, or place them in the care of family members or someone who has been checked out thoroughly and found to be completely trustworthy.

But there are things parents can do to help young children resist the advances of people who want to take advantage of them – though children need a long time to achieve mastery of the care and protection of their bodies.

They learn these skills by observing the things we parents do every day.

For example, they observe how we behave with strangers, who we talk to and who we avoid.

A young child goes from being totally cared for by his parents to wanting to do things for himself: feeding, washing, toileting, and dressing himself. And parents welcome this evidence that he is growing up and wants privacy and control over his own body.

Here is what Barbara Streeter, Education Director of the Hanna Perkins School, says about helping children protect themselves:

“What protects a child best is a sense of self-worth, an ability to know when he is being treated disrespectfully, and a sense that he has the right and ability to defend himself.”

To help a child develop those attributes and abilities, Streeter offers the following thoughts:

  • Always treat the child with respect, physically and emotionally.
  • Listen to and observe what he likes/dislikes and respond accordingly.
  • Protect her from intrusions of other adults – such as unwanted kisses, hugs, tickles, jokes, teases, insensitive doctors, salesmen, etc.
  • Support a child’s “no” to others when spoken or communicated non-verbally.
  • Assist a child in finding ways to defend himself when playmates and siblings are unkind in any way.
  • Show respect for – and support – a child’s need for privacy and control over what gets done to his body (eating, toileting, dressing, administering medications, etc.).
  • Avoid activities that make a child feel helpless (for example, adults overpowering a child by showing off their physical strength or engaging in excessive tickling).
  • Assist children in developing respect for “personal space”.
  • Carefully assess any person a child is being left with, and seriously consider any doubts you or the child might have.
  • Listen to what children have to say; let them know that we don’t automatically assume people in authority are right and they are wrong.

When children learn how to protect themselves, it’s not through our lectures or admonitions, but by observing the way their parents respect them and take care of them.

It’s a big job, but no one ever said being a parent was easy. We salute you and wish you well in doing that big job.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A parenting technique that really works

At a gathering of parents sponsored by The Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development (HPC), Licensed Independent Social Worker and HPC Child Psychoanalyst and Therapist Deborah Paris addressed a range of questions and concerns, including this one:

 Q: I keep hearing about “attachment parenting” and other parenting techniques. Is there a particular technique that you like?

A:  My preferred technique is whatever works best in promoting healthy development. It begins with understanding there are certain goals in raising young children:

  • Self care
  • Self regulation
  • Self determination

What makes people healthy is developing this sense of self – not us as parents doing for them.

You know, we do a funny thing these days. On one hand we see the helicopter parent, who is over-involved in everything the child tries to do. On the other hand we sometimes act like children are little adults, and we expect all sorts of things from them that they aren’t ready to handle – like sitting quietly through a long meal at an upscale restaurant.

In both extremes, what’s happening is the parents are trying to control the outcome. It’s as if by just doing or demanding all the right things, everything will come out fine. This is actually leaving the child – as an individual person – out of the equation.

If you insist on controlling the outcome, then your child is going to struggle to learn and practice self care, self determination, self regulation. It will be about you instead of about them.

But if you start from the perspective of what the child needs and what is going on inside of him or her– as opposed to adopting a specific parenting “technique” – you’ll end up in the right place.

Children have an inner world that is understood (or misunderstood) from the perspective of a 2- or 3- or 4-year-old brain. Be sensitive to this. Work with them to identify and resolve misunderstandings and misconceptions. Help them learn those things the developing self requires.

If you want to call this a parenting technique, I’d say it has a pretty good record of success.

Image of little boy courtesy of Julie Moore/Stock.xchng

 

A collection of holiday wisdom: All the Grandmothers’ seasonal writings in one location

The holidays are a wonderful time of year, but all the excitement and traditions of the season can create stress in young children that grownups, in their own enthusiasm, can easily overlook.

Here is a collection of previously published articles by the Hanna Perkins Grandmothers that may help you see the holidays as they really look through a child’s eyes – so you can create the best kind of memories for the young people in your life.

  • Keeping holidays focused on the children It’s happening again. We’ve all seen it before: A mother rushing along the sidewalk or through the mall, pushing a stroller and holding the hand of a 3-year-old who is pasted along her thigh, half-walking half-trotting in an effort to keep up. The ... Read more
  • The Santa Question This is a controversial subject, so we’re going to work up to our main point gradually. The Tooth Fairy No parent that we’re aware of takes great pains to protect the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. Maybe that’s because by the time a ... Read more
  • Handling holiday disappointments Grumpy Ballerina“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” sings Andy Williams over the PA system in Walmart – and as we pile gifts in our shopping cart we halfway believe it. The kid riding in the cart, eyeing the decorated artificial trees and ... Read more
  • The spirit of giving: How children’s gifts are recieved It was Christmas morning. As the family sat around the little tree, under which was a modest pile of wrapped gifts, Nina could not contain herself. She ran to the tree, pulled her gifts away from the others and distributed them; one for ... Read more
  • How little ones learn to love giving We Grandmothers are certainly aware that today’s families live in times of “Hurry Up” – that mothers and fathers both work and have to deal with malls filled with gifts of every shape and color. We recognize time is a precious commodity, so ... Read more
  • Excitement vs. Fun In most circles excitement is a positive word – often considered synonymous with fun. A movie, a television program, even an activity for young children, is praised for being exciting. Using the common definition, the opposite of exciting is boring, and boring is ... Read more
  • A holiday wish: Simple delight in your children What quality would we Grandmothers most ardently wish for you parents of young children in this final, bustling season of the year? Well OK, you didn’t ask, but we’re going to tell you anyway. Not patience, not insight, not mediation skills, not tolerance for ... Read more

Keeping holidays focused on the children

It’s happening again. We’ve all seen it before: A mother rushing along the sidewalk or through the mall, pushing a stroller and holding the hand of a 3-year-old who is pasted along her thigh, half-walking half-trotting in an effort to keep up.

The holidays are coming. The media is ratcheting up the excitement and the stores are inviting us in with glorious decorations, repetitive holiday music and store shelves overburdened with things to buy.

We are beginning to feel a little overwhelmed and as though we couldn’t keep up either. We wonder how the dictionary could ever have defined “holiday” as “That period of time when one does not work and does things for pleasure instead.”

In the rush of it all, what can we do to keep the children – particularly the preschoolers – in mind over the next few weeks?

“Oh for goodness sakes” you might object. “We constantly keep them in mind. We rush about buying them toys so they will have plenty of gifts. We make sure they have special clothes to wear and we hurry to get their pictures taken with Santa. We push our time limits to take them to see the big-headed characters in the downtown shopping center. What more do you want us to do?”

Perhaps we should all take a minute to try to see things from young children’s perspective, since we insist “These holidays are for children.”

Doing so might result in fewer frantic moments and less exhaustion for everyone.

Perhaps your children really aren’t so keen on having a picture taken with Santa. This you may observe if you stand watching one preschoolers after another scream while being hoisted onto the bearded man’s lap.

Perhaps being pulled along through the mall trying to avoid the oncoming legs is not something that is fun. Perhaps a mound of toys, to be opened in a few hours is, in truth, overwhelming.

“Yes,” you agree, “each year we do resolve to calm it down – next time But each year we get caught up in the excitement and the guilt we know we’ll feel if we let someone down.”

We Grandmothers got together and, after admitting that we too get caught up in holiday excitement, decided to suggest the following ideas to young parents. It might help.

1. Let your preschoolers help you

Decide whether a picture with Santa or the trip to the mall to see the big-heads is worth the trip, the wait and the anxiety it often causes for young children.

Set up a place at home where things can be made by your preschoolers and wrapped as gifts.

Kids love to help in making cookies or decorating butcher paper with handprints or potato prints to use as wrapping paper.

Any mess can be cleaned up faster than you can go to a mall, find a parking space, lift your preschooler out of his car seat and keep track of him as you run from store to store.

More important, the times you are quietly spending with your child – and the inner pleasure she gets as she makes the gift, gives it and is showered with appreciation – far outweighs the time it takes to clean up. 

2. Prepare them for what’s happening

When your holiday involves travel to visit a friend or relative, prepare your children for what will happen. We take so many things for granted and forget it is all new to them. They may erroneously think, as one o four own grandchildren once did, that they won’t be returning home.

Young children fill in missing information with their own private assumptions that often never get voiced because they are afraid of what they may hear.

“Where will I sleep? Will there be a bathroom there? What’s a kennel and what will happen to Spot? Will someone feed him? Will we ever see him again?” There are reasonable questions for a young child who has little experience with such holiday hubbub.

Often people come to visit and household members are shifted to other rooms to make room for grandparents or friends. If this is a surprise to your preschooler be prepared for embarrassing tears of objection.

A discussion ahead of time about the change – about how hard it can be to give up a room for a few days, with a concrete description of exactly where everyone will sleep – often helps alleviate any showdown.

Being a part of the alternative plan and feeling the welcoming attitude of a mother and father beforehand enriches the experience in ways that live well beyond these holidays

3. Reduce the burden on yourself

We can take a cue from the breaking news each year that the “Black Friday” shopping rush has overtaken a little bit more of Thanksgiving Day, as employees implore management to “please respect our families and allow these rare times when we can be together.”

The times children remember as most special are those when parents themselves are able to relax and enjoy special time together.

Though it may be difficult at first, mothers and fathers can reduce the times when they are feeling they have to rush along with young children plastered to their sides to get it all done. Make these holidays “those periods of time when one does not work and does things for pleasure instead.”

Image courtesy of ImageryMajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

 

 

6 strategies for talking about the election with your children

boys_bw_back_cco-public-domainA few days after the presidential election, in one of our own classrooms, a 5-year-old declared, “My Mom voted for Trump.”

“Trump’s an idiot!” a 6-year-old classmate replied. And then a teacher stepped in.

In our schools, on the playgrounds, in our homes, conversations like this are going on amongst children ages 2 to 18 – often as not, unsupervised. Older children have been suspended from school for posting threats and ridiculing others.

What does it mean to these children that the country is so divided, that adults and the media are making frightening predictions of what’s to come? What does it mean to children of color or different religions? And what does it mean to their friends?

This post is not about politics, it is about the things children hear and say. How do we, as parents and teachers, help them sort it out? How do we help those who are frightened to feel safe?

Here are six strategies for talking to your kids in this heightened political environment:

1. Start by listening. Before rushing to explain, ask questions, listen to the answers and ask more questions. When your child says “Trump is mean” or “Hillary was bad,” find out what he thinks is meant by the word “mean” or “bad.”

2. Try to uncover misconceptions and provide context. For adults, presidential elections happen every four years. For young children, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Adults understand concepts like voting but often forget to explain it to young children. One 4-year-old understood voting to mean, “Whoever has the most signs.”

In general, children are exposed to much more than they are ready to understand. They hear adults talking, they perceive how we feel and they catch bits of information on the news that seem unfamiliar and strange.

If an adult doesn’t step in gently to help them make sense of it, they’ll try to make sense of it on their own, based on their limited experience in the world.

3. Understand a child’s concerns in the context of her world rather than yours. Younger children worry most about their parents’ well being. It’s scary to see a parent very upset or very angry. Ask if she noticed you were upset and if it scared her. Then reassure her that even though you had big feelings, you are OK and nothing bad is going to happen.

Older children may worry about the things that will happen to themselves or children they know if the laws change or if people are fighting. Will the family have enough money? Will a good friend be sent away? Most often, these worries can be assuaged by realistic responses. When they can’t, children need to know that they shouldn’t have to worry about it – the grown ups will be taking care of what happens and how the problems are solved.

Adolescents need to be able to talk with adults about their various questions and ideas about world affairs without it becoming a debate or argument. Just a few reality oriented comments and factual questions here and there are often sufficient to help ground them as they move forward in their thinking. They may project anxiety about themselves and worries about being out of control by criticizing everything in government and how adults are handling things – and this is healthy. What isn’t helpful is when they’re left to work out these things alone or among themselves without the grounding of safe, caring and respectful adults. That’s when talk can escalate and adolescents begin to act out.

4. Be judicious with punishment and discipline. Children who post threats, talk meanly to peers or engage in unsafe behavior are often doing so in order to ward off their own sense of vulnerability in the face of the unknown. The first priority is to stop the behavior before it creates harm to them or anyone else. After that, help them give voice to their fears in a situation where they feel safe, perhaps at the family dinner table, or in quiet conversation one-on-one. Then, after showing compassion and acknowledging their own concerns, determine what consequences are appropriate for their behavior – with a sincere apology to anyone they’ve mistreated often being the most important thing they can do.

5. Reduce media exposure. Shelter children from the media as much as possible. When they are exposed, help them understand that everything people say on TV is not necessarily true, and that watching people yell at each other or do mean things doesn’t help anyone figure out how to solve problems.

Barbara Streeter, School Director

Barbara Streeter, School Director

6. Be prepared to discuss it again. Don’t assume all is resolved after discussing a worry. Children are constantly re-thinking everything you say and do, everything they see and hear. Stay alert for signs that they’re ready for the next dialogue.

Dealing with stranger anxiety

Parenting has always been stressful, but now more than ever it seems. So my heart goes out to moms and dads who struggle with the issue of how to keep their children safe without instilling undue fear – fear that can lead a child to heightened levels of stranger anxiety.

Stranger anxiety is a normal part of development that occurs in most children around the age of 6 or 7 months, and it may last until the child’s first birthday or so.

At this stage, children are very attached to their primary providers, and they may experience considerable distress when in the company of people with whom they are unfamiliar. Often, they show this distress by hiding behind their parents, quietly peeking at the stranger and loudly protesting if he or she makes any overtures.

When this kind of behavior is seen in older children, I often wonder about angry feelings they may be experiencing. Are those aggressive feelings being projected outward and making the world seem like a very unsafe place?

This is typical of what you find in children who are terrified of the boogey man, burglars, ghosts, etc. As one savvy boy put it, “I think that’s just my mad feelings coming back to get me.”

So, what do you do?

First and foremost, keep your cool. Children are masters at picking up on their parents’ anxiety.

Very matter-of-factly reinforce the importance of not talking to strangers. But then, prepare the child in advance for situations where contact with strangers will be unavoidable – like at the airport, as an example.

You can say things like: “Mommy and daddy will be with you and keep you safe.” Or if a school field trip is planned, you might offer: “When you go to the museum, there will be strangers, but you’ll be with your teacher. And the school staff will keep you safe.”

Also, remind your child about police officers, whose job is to keep us safe.

If you suspect your child is projecting his/her own anger, encourage the use of words for feelings. “You seem angry; I wish you could tell me about it.” If your child seems scared of strangers to the point of panic, seek professional help.

More Parenting Tips available at www.westpsychotherapy.com.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Cross-cultural test of anti-bullying program

trinidad-w-bell-0716While team members at The Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development were preparing this summer for the first broad-based rollout of “My Mad Feelings,” a bullying prevention curriculum for children as young as 4, Clinical Director Kimberly Bell was giving the program a cross-cultural test at a school in Trinidad and Tobago. While the test was informal, the results, she said, were strongly positive.

While most anti-bullying programs focus on adolescent children, the origins of bullying can be recognized at a much younger age – when children first go to school or child care, and are learning to advocate for themselves in a social setting.

When angry, scared or otherwise bothered, young children “share” the way they feel by grabbing, hitting or saying hurtful things –acting out the feeling so others feel it too.

This is normal behavior, and it signals a developmental readiness to begin learning how to express themselves verbally instead. Otherwise, their behavior makes others angry and invites disciplinary action, creating a downward spiral in self-esteem. By adolescence, these behaviors may become habitual, and are recognized as bullying. (Learn more about My Mad Feelings here.)

“My Mad Feelings” is classroom curriculum for children age 4-7 to support the emotional learning process. It’s being taught in all preschool classes in the Shaker Heights City School District for the 2016-17 school year – the first time the program is being used across an entire public school system.

But as that effort was being prepared, Bell put it to use in July with a class of 5-year-olds at the Naomi Chin Kit Memorial School in Pt. Fortin, on the island of Trinidad. Bell was invited as part of a free dental clinic by volunteers from the dentistry programs and social work programs at Buffalo State College and the University of Buffalo.

Conditions for the cross-cultural test were less than optimal. While the program is designed to be taught in 12 lessons, Bell had only four. So she worked in advance with Victoria Todd, author of the curriculum, to select which sections to teach.

It’s also intended for small-group discussion, not a full classroom.

Bell observed the class before beginning the program, and said typical behaviors included impulsiveness, difficulty managing big feelings, and finding words to express feelings. She also noted a general confusion between the emotions of anger and fear.

“Their culture contains a drive to obtain limited resources, so concepts like waiting in line and taking turns don’t come naturally there,” Bell added. She described “a mad rush and a lot of crying” when crayons were placed on the table for coloring. One boy, unhappy with his picture, cried inconsolably because he didn’t think there would be any extra paper so he could start over.

“Even in the toughest possible conditions, these children responded like they were hungry for it,” she said. “After the last day, when we said our goodbyes, I’ll be darned if the two children with the biggest behavior problems weren’t sharing equipment on the playground, pushing each other on the swing. They were actively identifying feelings and seeking help in problem-solving.

“In the end, it was very clear the basic tenets of what we do at Hanna Perkins are universal,” Bell continued. “You get a tremendous response from young children when their feelings are acknowledged and when you help them give voice to those feelings.”

“The teachers were hesitant at first to believe a non-authoritarian approach was going to work. But the little 4-year-old who spent the first two days crying, screaming and running away came in on Day 3, put his backpack down and prepared for class. That’s when the teachers came to me and asked for a copy of the “Mad Feelings” teaching materials, so they could continue the process.”

Since the experience, the school director has traveled to Cleveland to observe operations at Hanna Perkins School. She is working to raise funds for teachers to travel here to receive formal training on the “Mad Feelings” curriculum.

Following is a video about the experience. Brief discussion of Bell’s work with My Mad Feelings begins at 7:10.

A simple test to know if a child is ready for Halloween frights

Halloween is right around the corner and houses are decked out with witches, spiders, graves and bats.

Some adults seem to be involved in a strange competition to see who can create the most ghoulish, terrifying images and haunted basements, etc. All of this scariness is appropriate for older, school-age children and teenagers. But it can be very confusing and downright frightening for preschoolers and young children who don’t have good reality testing.

How do we know they don’t have good reality testing?  Because they believe in the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny. Older children with better reality testing will tell you there’s no way Santa can go all over the world in one night and he’s too fat to come down a chimney. But younger children believe he can.

I vividly recall a terrified, 6-year-old coming to her therapy session with tears in her eyes. She just saw a coffin open up in someone’s front yard and a “dead person” popped out. She then proceeded to make scary noises and jump out of the dark at me, so I would know firsthand how frightened she was. Then she asked me if dead people “get out of their graves” at Halloween.

I hope you will keep these thoughts in mind as you decorate and celebrate Halloween. If your school-age children are going to be around little ones, don’t permit them to wear frightening costumes. If you have younger children, serve as a protective barrier from scary Halloween sights, sounds and activities. Keep Halloween fun, as it was meant to be.

Photo courtesy of Victor Habbick/Freedigitalphotos.net

Please don’t scare the little ones at Halloween time

Every year, the month of October brings a crescendo of frights leading up to Halloween. They appear everywhere – on television, in stores, at parties and even early learning centers and schools.

It’s all meant in fun, but for very young children scary fun isn’t fun at all; it’s just scary.

Here’s a column written several years ago. As long as we can count on zombies and goblins to appear this time of year, we’ll resurrect it as a reminder to parents, educators and concerned adults.

–Webmaster


Dear Grandmothers:  A few years ago, my 3-year-old Phoebe helped me hand out treats on Halloween and we were having a lot of fun until a child dressed as a witch came to the door. Phoebe was terrified—she ran and hid under a table and wouldn’t even go near the door the rest of the evening. What should I do to make Halloween less traumatic for her this year?            –Phoebe’s Mom

We answered:  First, let us congratulate you on taking your child’s fears seriously – and before October 30. So often, we are taken by surprise when all the hype — which begins just after the Back to School sales — begins to cause our children to become over-excited or nervous. We may not realize that such behavior is all about the upcoming season of scare.

Despite all our talk to our preschoolers about the difference between what’s pretend and what’s real, they are still too young to really know this. Even though they say “I know it’s not real,” they can still be confused and frightened when confronted by witches, skeletons, ghosts and monsters – all the scary props of the season.

You can help your preschooler if you can just remember that everything she sees is absolutely real to her.

Another way to help young children is to recognize that your memories of your childhood Halloween fun are not from your preschool years.  You certainly were in elementary school when you had so much fun trick or treating until all hours with your friends, watching a scary video, or visiting a haunted house.

Many parents remember only those school-age Halloweens and think that such activities are what it’s all about, even for the littlest children. But they’re not—those kinds of activities are way too much for preschoolers.

Don’t worry;  you have many years ahead of reliving your childhood Halloween fun.  Just don’t rush it with the little ones.

So, what can you do for Phoebe this year?

Protect her from scary TV (even many commercials are overwhelming and frightening—or, at the very least, confusing).

Be on the lookout for signs that she is overwhelmed, overexcited, scared.  Is she running around excitedly, or does she cling to you, have her fingers in her mouth? Any unusual behavior at this time of year should make you wonder if she’s confused or frightened and should prompt you to ask her if she is worried about something.

Just your recognition of her nervousness will reassure her and help her to calm down.

If you can get her to tell you what she is worried about, don’t try to talk her out of her fears; acknowledge them and try to figure out a way to help her manage.

Let her decide how much she wants to participate in Halloween activities, respect her wishes. And give her a calmed down, low-key Halloween:  a costume, no mask;  trick or treating at a few friends’ or neighbors’ houses;  pumpkins and cute black cat decorations;  protections from anything that is overwhelming and not understood—or at least acknowledgement of those things and reassurance from you that you will keep her safe.

So, have fun this year, but be on the lookout for things that are “too much.”  All too soon she’ll be 10 and begging you to help her put up a haunted house in the garage.

Photo courtesy of Phaitoon/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Bedtime Struggles

Children who resist bedtime are noted for their determinedly open eyes and, usually, loud protests at being put to bed, often at the hour when the caregiver is most desperate to have the child fall asleep. Unfortunately, such wakefulness is not something that occurs once and then is outgrown forever but is a stage that can appear at several different ages and for different reasons: in infancy, in toddlerhood, and quite possibly at regular intervals after that. Some children, for no reason that anyone has been able to determine, always sleep well; others appear to be born requiring little sleep. All parents seem to need sleep, however, so stubborn wakefulness on the child’s part can be troubling indeed.

Where the Child is Headed

What parents hope is that after the appropriate bedtime rituals, the child will be able to go to bed and fall asleep, without undue objection, in her own bed, and to remain there sleeping without summoning a parent except in the case of an emergency, until a reasonable wake up time. The parents role is not to put the child to sleep but to encourage the child to learn to do this for herself.

Cause

The wakeful infant has learned to associate sleep and rocking, or sleep and feeding, or sleep and sucking. When the child wakes up to discover that he’s alone in his crib, not being rocked or fed any more, or that the pacifier has fallen out of his mouth, he can’t go back to sleep unless someone feeds him or rocks him or replaces the pacifier.

The wakeful toddler has separation anxiety. He wants you by his side by night as much as he does by day – even more so, because he feels a loss of control and vulnerability at bedtime, much as you do when responsibilities and concerns that you can easily handle at 3PM have you staring at the ceiling in the dark at 3AM. So he tries to lure you back with requests for a drink, a kiss, one more story.

Wakeful children of all ages may be afraid: of the dark; of monsters under the bed; of very real monster-like behaviors that he’s witnessed during the day at home, school, or on television; of his own angry feelings that haunt him with terrifying thoughts when awake and nightmares when asleep. Additionally, children often show their feelings about daytime separations when it’s time for the night time separation.

How You Feel

Depending on when your bedtime is, you are either irritated that the child is interrupting your adult time with your spouse, a book, or a hobby you enjoy, or you are somewhere between tired and exhausted. Your patience is short, and you have difficulty being sympathetic with your infant’s wails or your older child’s insistence that he’s thirsty or that there’s a dragon in his closet. At the same time, you are feeling guilty at your very own irritation, not to mention at having left him all day in the day care center or with a sitter. So you are tempted to invite him to stay up another hour or to sleep in your bed where at least you’ll be together and he’ll be quiet and you can both get some sleep.

What to Understand

You are absolutely right: you both need your sleep, and you also need your child-free hours. Most children who are having trouble sleeping just need reassurance that you are there, that you will keep them safe, and that bedtime is a good and necessary thing. They do not need to get into bed with you because then you will have another problem: getting them out.

What to do

Make bedtime as pleasant as possible. Do not rush it, no matter how much of a hurry you are in. Whatever the child’s age, take time for relaxing and comforting routines such as tucking in a favorite doll, singing a special bedtime song, reading a story or two. A beloved stuffed animal or special blanket is often helpful in keeping a child content through the night. Recorded music, perhaps the same familiar tunes each night, can become intuitive signals for sleep. Nightlights can be comforting to children who express a fear of the dark; older children can be permitted to read to themselves and turn out their own lights when they are ready. But whatever the bedtime props, when it becomes time to say goodnight, say it with conviction. If the child fusses for a while, let him fuss. If he continues to fuss, go to him with reassuring words and pats, but not with an invitation to join the grown-ups either in front of the TV or in bed. If necessary, sit beside the child’s own bed for a while until she is calmed.

Next Time

Start perfecting your bedtime routine. Prepare your child with a half hour warning, and if possible devote that half hour to an activity the child particularly enjoys – a quiet and calming one, of course – giving him your full attention. Then make actual bedtime a pleasurable time of conversation, cuddles, songs and stories. Assure him that you will keep him safe through the night, and express confidence that soon, possibly tonight, he will be able to fall asleep right away, and sleep until morning.

Thinking Further

Trust your own sense of whether your child is protesting bedtime only in the hopes of squeezing a little more activity into his day, or he is truly distressed, sincerely frightened. Remember your own childhood fears at bedtime, and how vivid they were. If, after your best bedtime routine performances and your repeated reassurances that all is well, your child is still unable to sleep, consider consultation with a child development specialist. You and your child both may need help in understanding the causes of his persistent wakefulness.

Image courtesy of Ambro/Freedigitalphotos.net