Sleep issues in children and teens may feel complex and never-ending, especially to bewildered and exhausted parents at the end of their tether. But in my experience, problems with sleep have proved to be one of the most straightforward issues to solve and put right.
By the time parents usually come to see me, they’ve typically been heroically battling their child’s sleep issues for months and sometimes years. When children struggle to get to sleep by themselves, it can put a huge strain on Mum and Dad at a time when they’re also trying to cope with other daily demands: work, looking after other children, and caring for elderly or sick parents. In most cases, parents are often in need of a good night’s sleep themselves.
Using a combination of hypnotherapy (Rapid Transformational Therapy) and practical coaching techniques, the first step to solving a child’s sleep issues is always to find out where, when, how and why he or she first started experiencing difficulties either getting to sleep or staying asleep. My next step is using hypnotherapy to help foster a strong belief in the child that they can sleep easily and effortlessly all by themselves. In most cases, children have convinced themselves (and their parents) that they can’t. I like to compare the process to deleting old, unwanted apps (negative beliefs) on your mobile phone and installing upgraded Better Sleep software (positive beliefs, thoughts and actions) instead!
Lastly, I work with parents to reintroduce good sleep hygiene alongside setting new boundaries around bedtime to make better sleep a lifelong habit.
Common sleep issues in children and teens
Some common childhood sleep issues I see in my practice:
- Frequent nightmares or night terrors,
- Not being able to go to their bedroom by themselves,
- Needing a parent to sit with them or stay in their bedroom until they fall asleep,
- Waking up in the middle of the night and needing a parent to help them get back off to sleep,
- Not being able to sleep in their own room.
Of course, not getting enough sleep has a knock-on effect on every part of a child’s life, and can lead to poor engagement and concentration at school and being moodier and less co-operative at home. The link between sleep and mental health is very closely tied. Almost every child I see in my practice, who is experiencing anxiety or depression, also has poor sleep or sleep issues.
Sleep problems also can affect friendships. I know many children who turn down invitations for sleepovers or refuse to have friends over to sleep, because it means letting on that they need Mum or Dad to sit with them every night.
For parents, normal evenings become a thing of the past as Mum or Dad, or both, take it in turns to sit with their child until they fall asleep. Evenings out become impossible as parents become locked in the bedtime routine and find it difficult to ask a babysitter to look after the children while they’re out.
Until sleep issues are sorted out, normal family life is put on hold. Everyone is tired and everyone suffers.
How sleep issues in children and teens start
We are all born with the perfect natural ability to fall asleep, and usually to sleep soundly for around 6 to 10 hours. Our bodies are designed to sleep and, at their most fundamental level, know how to sleep without any interference from us.
At some point as we get older however, our minds start to hijack the sleep process. If we have a couple of difficult nights getting to sleep, we may start to create a belief in ourselves that we have insomnia or some other sleeping disorder.
We may start to say things like “I can’t get to sleep”, “I’ve tried everything but I just can’t sleep”, or “I’m not a good sleeper”.
This line of thinking however creates a feeling of anxiety around bedtime and sleeping, which then of course interferes even further with the sleep process. Believing we can’t sleep becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and going to bed becomes something we dread rather then look forward to.
Our bodies may be crying out for sleep, but our minds keep us awake.
This same thought process is true for our children too.
In general, at the root of every child’s sleep issue is a feeling of worry or fear:
- Worry. A child may lie awake worrying about what happened during the daytime or worrying about what might happen in the future. Worrying may take the form of going over events that went badly and wondering if they could have done things differently or, worrying about things that might happen such as failing exams, getting in to trouble, parents getting a divorce or being bullied at school.
Worrying is our mind’s way of trying to put things right. By going over past events our minds are scouring our memories for clues that we were somehow not at fault, that we weren’t to blame. By worrying about future events, our minds are rehearsing worst case scenarios in an attempt to try to be prepared for any threat of pain.
- Fear. It is not uncommon for children to be afraid of the dark. I think most adults can relate. The dark, especially when it’s associated with sleeping, is when we are most vulnerable. Children may fight sleep as they are afraid of what might happen while they are asleep and so feel they have to stay awake and be vigilant. They might be worried about waking up in the middle of the night and no one being there to help them. They may also fight sleep because they are worried about having nightmares. Sleep issues caused by fear are often triggered by watching a scary movie or seeing something scary on the news or in social media.
How one or two sleepless nights turn into a sleep issue
While most sleep issues start because of worry or fear (a feeling), they become embedded through habit (an action).
This habit or action is the immediate response to the sleep issue and is often reinforced because at some point it becomes easier for poor Mum and Dad to “give in” to their child’s sleep issues than tough them out. And that’s not in any way a judgment. Having dealt with my own kids’ sleep issues, I know there will always be times when it’s simply easier to crawl into bed with your child to help them sleep (and go to sleep yourself) because you are too exhausted for another battle. There will be times when your child is sick and you might be worried about leaving them on their own. There will be times when you sit on your child’s bed every night until they go to sleep because you just don’t know what else will work. Having tried all options sometimes it’s just easier and less exhausting to take the path of least resistance. We have all been there!
While no one is saying don’t ever comfort your child at night, the danger is that this parental reassurance becomes a pattern. If a parent sits with a child until they go to sleep on a regular basis, the child’s subconscious belief becomes: “I need Mum and Dad to sit with me because I can’t get to sleep by myself”.
Or, the shorthand version: I can’t get to sleep by myself.
Once this belief is there, no amount of practical action is likely to be very effective, You can change the bedtime routine, use sleep aids like night lights and white noise, read bedtime stories till the cows come home… the belief will dominate the child’s behaviour, and then that of the whole family dynamic.
While your child may have the belief that they can’t go to sleep by themselves, our job as parents – and mine as a hypnotherapist – is to help them believe that they can.
Jake: A Scary Movie Story
I’ve recently been seeing a lot of children in my practice, all around the age of 11 or 12, who tell me their sleep issues started because of one particular movie:
In most cases the children have never even seen the film. Some have accidentally caught a glimpse of the movie trailer while they’ve been on social media. Or they’ve seen the posters showing Pennywise, or have been told gruesome details about the more gory scenes by older brothers and sisters who have seen the film.
It seems just the image of Pennywise the clown is enough to terrorise younger children (and some adults I know) and start off a downward cycle of fear of the dark and disrupted sleep.
This was definitely true of Jake, who had accidentally seen a trailer for the film while innocently watching YouTube videos. From that point on he downright refused to go upstairs to bed by himself and insisted on Mum sitting on the bed with him until he went to sleep, which could often take hours.
Poor Mum – what should have been evenings spent relaxing and chatting with her husband after a day at work, were now spent in a dark room, trying to get Jake to sleep. Even when she did go to bed, Jake would wake up most nights and call for her. Not knowing what else to do, and worrying he would be too tired for school the next day, she would go to his room and once again sit with him till he fell asleep.
Mum came to see me after this had been going on for nearly a year.
My hypnotherapy session with Jake involved helping desensitise the trigger (Pennywise’s face) but most importantly “re-installing” the brain’s original “sleep software” and the absolute belief that he could go to sleep all by himself without Mum’s help,. The emphasis was on building confidence that sleep would come naturally, easily and effortlessly.
I also worked with Mum, giving her key techniques, including suggestions she could use to help embed the belief in sleep in Jake’s mind.
After just one session of RTT, Jake started to go up to bed by himself. Mum changed her usual habit of sitting on the bed, and began just popping in to his bedroom to say Goodnight. Jake felt comfortable letting her leave the room and falling asleep by himself, which Mum said he started doing in minutes instead of hours.
Jake continues to make huge progress and bedtime now feels normal and under control. Mum and Dad are back to enjoying their evenings, something they had given up hope of ever happening.
Crucially, Jake’s progress was about allowing him to take his own time, and for any changes to come from him. This is true of all the RTT work I do with children and teenagers. The pace of change is dictated by the child – not the parent, no matter how much the parent wants (or desperately needs) change to happen as soon as possible.
Things to try before you seek help for your child’s sleep issue
If you’re not doing these already, the following steps are a good place to start to help get your child’s sleep back on track.
Good Sleep Hygiene and Sleep Routines:
- Make bedtime a set time every night – no matter what time your child eventually falls asleep.
- Try to get into the routine of waking your child every morning at the same time, regardless of what time they got to sleep the night before
- Limit screen time before bed – no screens at least one hour before bedtime and keep devices out of the bedroom (no tablets or phones on charge).
- It seems obvious, but limit sugar and caffeinated drinks and also strenuous exercise or activities before bedtime.
The Power of Suggestion:
When our children struggle to sleep they will often use words and phrases like:
I can’t get to sleep,
I’ll never get to sleep, or
I’m trying to get to sleep but I can’t…
As a parent or caregiver, your words can have a powerful effect on your child’s belief in their ability to sleep, and their own sleep confidence.
By using and repeating key phrases and suggestions consistently throughout the day you can help build your child’s belief in their own ability to get to sleep by themselves.
One phrase I hear parents say a lot (and I was guilty of using it myself when my children were younger), is:
“Try and get to sleep”
There are three words in this phrase which will be a barrier to your child’s belief in being able to sleep: “try” and “get to:
The word “try” implies that something is hard. We don’t want our children believing that going to sleep is hard.
Similarly, the words “get to” implies that sleep is something your child needs to work at rather than something that will come naturally of its own accord.
A better, more powerful suggestion is:
“Sleep will come really easily”.
This takes all the hard work out of going to sleep. Sleep will come all on its own. It’s about allowing it, not working at it.
For my free Cheat Sheet of powerful phrases and suggestions to Help Your Child Get to Sleep, please fill in the form at the bottom of the page.