There, I said it.
I see article after article about the magic of bedtime, and the special bond parents share with their children with snuggles and nuzzles and a sing-song goodnight, lights out.
Over at our house, bedtime is torture for everyone involved.
My five-year-old has night fears. I get it. I had them as a child too. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to his plight, it’s just that I’m exhausted as hell and I need him to go to sleep. We’ve tried talking to him about his worries. What is he scared of? He doesn’t know. Well, sometimes Slenderman (thank you, older brother) but usually, it’s nothing in particular or at least nothing he can vocalize.
We have tried telling him that we are right outside his door and we will see anything before it comes to him. We have assured him that nothing is coming for him, but even if it did, we would get to it first. But night time anxiety is like any other kind of anxiety – it’s irrational. He knows it’s all in his head, but it’s scary anyway.
For me, as a child, it was aliens.
E.T. specifically at first, followed by those big-headed, little-bodied things that were so commonly portrayed in the 90s. Also, snipers, as though that were a big problem in suburban Ontario. Trying to talk me through it didn’t work either, so I get where he is coming from, I do.
But we can’t keep sitting with him. I spent five years nursing, rocking, and sitting with his brother at bedtime, and as soon as we got his brother able to settle himself at night, he was born and I started over. After a full decade of long, difficult bedtimes, I’ve reached my limit. Add in a new disability that makes sitting next to his bed difficult, and we have a recipe for bedtime nightmares.
When he seemed open to the idea of me sitting in my room next door with the doors open, I jumped on it. He would call me from his bed to make sure I was still there, and that brought him enough reassurance to stay in his bed. But he began to worry that I wouldn’t hear him and started refusing to go in his bed again.
That’s when I had one of those lightning strike ideas. Walkie-talkies.
We went out the next day and bought walkie-talkies. After putting the batteries in and setting them up, we laid down some ground rules. They were not for playing, only for use at night time between he and I. He was to use them only to call and make sure I was still there. And if he continued getting out of bed instead of using the walkie-talkies, they were going back to the store.
The first night, he hopped excitedly into bed without an argument. He called me on the walkie-talkies exactly three times, with long pauses between, and was asleep on his own within fifteen minutes. Eureka!
It makes sense when I think about it. At his age, children aren’t fully able to distinguish between real and pretend. Telling them there are no such things as monsters, or whatever they are afraid of, can be ineffectual because, in their minds, they are very much real.
What works better is giving them some kind of control in the situation.
For some kids, things like Monster Spray (water labelled as Monster Repellent) works. My kids are too skeptical. For mine, giving him a literal button to push to access help when he is scared seems to be doing the job so far. It’s an action plan with immediate results – me answering him.
So for now, we are sticking to the protocol that he can call me as many times as he needs to on the walkie-talkie as long as he stays in his bed.
I don’t know if it will last, but for his anxiety and mine, it’s worth a try. Fingers crossed.