Separating from the warmth and safety of connection with a parent is a challenge for many children. Giving up the reassuring presence of Mommy or Daddy to go to sleep can bring up deep fears of being alone, being separate, or being helpless to find their loved one in the dark.
Here’s how to help without further frightening your child. You will use the power of your warm attention — the power of listening to deep feelings — as a way to help your child drain the fear they bring with them to bed. You’ll give them the signal that it’s time for sleep, along with the safety of your calm presence. You’ll find just the right way to help them feel safe even if still feeling slightly threatened, all at the same time. And when that just-right combination of good and hard is reached, your child will cry, and you can listen. Your listening will heal the hurt.
You don’t want to try to tamp down their feelings with stuffed animals, a pacifier, a bottle, or a favorite blanket. You want to bring them you, and all the power you have because you’re Mommy, Daddy, or even their Babysitter. You’re a big person who can tell them they are safe. You’re a grownup who can say with confidence, “I know it’s hard. But you’re safe. This is a good time to go to sleep. I’ll be right nearby,” and give them an outlet for all that panic. All that grief. All that sense that they won’t be okay.
Those feelings are already inside your child; you can’t surgically remove them. They crop up at other times, too. They make your child anxious when you walk into the next room. Or they make it so your child won’t say “Hello” to friends at the park. They crop up when Daddy wants to put your child to bed to give you fifteen minutes to yourself after dinner. Your child is already scared.
The way to help is to provide just enough separation to ignite your child’s feelings, but not so much separation that they don’t know where you are, and the threat they feel becomes real.
So sit on the side of the bed while your child begs you to lie back down next to them. When sitting on the bed doesn’t feel threatening to them anymore, say, “I’m going to stand up now, but I’m not going quite yet,” and let your child cry hard again about that one change that communicates, “I am on my way out of your room.” Keep the crying going, offer love and caring, and listen long. Don’t disappear, instead, give your child the security of your presence, along with the feel of your intent to leave them safe in their bed.
What should you say? Not much. Not much. When you speak, make sure your love shows in your voice and on your face. “Sweetie, you’re safe. I’m not going to go very far.” Then listen for three minutes. “This is a safe bed to sleep in. I’ll be nearby all night long.” Listen again for a good while. “These are your sheets. This is your blanket. They are clean and made just for sleeping.” Listen, listen, listen to the hurt as it pours out. Pour your love in, so it can take root where the fear left some space. “I am always coming back to you. Always.” Listen again. Touch your child affectionately. Let him wail. He is safe. You are there. You are helping him let go of fears that keep him from relaxing and trusting that tomorrow, and you will come.
Sometimes, it takes many nights of listening before the fears are drained. This is because some children endure frightening situations early in their lives, and at such a young age, their fear has colored their experience for days, weeks, months, perhaps even some years. So it’s not a quick release process.
What you will see is that, given this safe outlet for his stored feelings, your child will become more affectionate, more relaxed, is likely to laugh more, adventure further, and meet his world with more confidence. Your listening gives him the sense that even in the middle of his worst feelings, you are there, and you care about him.
This is not “Crying It Out,” a widely discredited way of discouraging a child from crying in the night. It is emotional support. This is a healing process. This is you, doing what you have always wanted to do — this is you, lifting a heavy weight from your child’s heart, so he feels safer, more loved, and more powerful in his world.
You might need someone to listen to your feelings after you’ve listened to your child’s. It will help you to release the feelings you have about your child having to feel so scared, so alone, so panicked. Go ahead. Cry hard. Wish your child never had to feel anything hurtful. Come out the other side feeling lighter, less worried, refreshed. You’ll see for yourself what you’re providing for your child. A listener makes all the difference. A listener heals the hurt when nothing else can help so thoroughly and so gently. You have great power to make things better when you listen.
Contributed by Patty Wipfler, Founder and Program Director, Hand in Hand Parenting and author of "LISTEN: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges"