My 11 year old daughter, Maxine, slept alone in her own room for years and years with no trouble. Until last year… Halloween 2017. About 6 months ago, after more than a year of tears and interrupted sleep, we finally started a ‘Worry Brain’ project and beat the nighttime anxiety. She has given me permission to share our journey with you.
Read on to learn what worked (and what didn’t!) and how to use the ‘Worry Brain’ strategies to combat your child’s anxiety.
Maxine has never been an anxious kid, but she does have a rich imagination and a low tolerance for scary things. She knows herself pretty well so she knew to avoid listening to scary stories. But last year at school on Halloween she decided she was old enough now and she could handle them. That night, she confessed she was terrified and when she couldn’t sleep, I agreed to sleep with her. I thought she’d forget the stories and get over her fear after a few nights with me and some reassurance.
It didn’t end quickly as I had thought. Some nights she could fall asleep on her own just fine, and some some nights she even slept through the night without issue. But most nights she couldn’t sleep unless she knew I’d be joining her. “Will you please sleep with me?” became a nightly desperate plea. Some nights she did manage to fall asleep on her own, but then she would come and wake me up to sleep with her in the middle of the night. “I’m scared! I can’t sleep alone!” Taking the path of least resistance (and more sleep!) I would sleep with her.
This was my first strategy: Time and comfort. It didn’t work. In fact, her anxiety got worse as we avoided what was making her anxious. She became dependent on me to feel safe. I learned two things:
Anxiety rule #1: If it’s anxiety, children don’t grow out of their fears.
Anxiety rule #2: Avoiding what makes children anxious makes the anxiety stronger.
When I asked her during the day what she was afraid of, it was pretty dark. The most common thing was that someone would break into our house. And she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She told me that when she woke up in the night and the house was quiet, she thought it was because someone had broken into the house and killed everyone but her.
I reassured her. I showed her the locked doors. I reminded her how big and strong her dad and her brothers are, and that no one could get past them. We talked about how our neighbours were so close that they would surely see someone trying to break in and call the police. I reminded her that our dog barks like crazy every time anyone comes to the door. Nothing worked.
Anxiety rule #3: If reassurance doesn’t work right away, it’s not going to.
Anxiety doesn’t care about logic or reason. Larry Cohen, author of The Opposite of Worry, says, “If reassurance doesn’t work after 15 seconds, it’s not going to work.” A child who might not understand something, or needs information, will respond to reassurance. For a child struggling with anxiety, no amount of reassurance will allay their fears.
Anxiety rule #4: Anxiety doesn’t go away with “Suck it up, Buttercup.”
We tried being tough. That didn’t work either. We just all felt bad. It broke my heart to hear her crying herself to sleep. (We only did that once!)
Anxiety rule #5: Anxiety doesn’t go away by itself, no matter how hard a child tries.
I knew how hard Maxine was trying. She knew that it was causing a strain on me and her dad. She really wanted to be able to do it. But every night, her Worry Brain took over.
I should know better, right? I help parents of children with anxiety! It would be one thing if I didn’t have this information, but I know it. My failure was in thinking somehow anxiety rules #1-5 didn’t apply to us (and also opting for the path of least resistance in the middle of the night!)
I finally realized I needed to use the tools that I teach parents of anxious kids. We needed to go into full-on ‘Worry Brain’ project mode. Before we get to the tools, let’s talk about anxiety.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion. We all feel a measure of anxiety, for example, before a big exam or a first date. Mostly it doesn’t get in the way. We know how to calm ourselves, or we can feel the fear and convince ourselves to proceed anyway. Anxiety becomes a problem when the part of our brain that is responsible for keeping us safe, the amygdala, is overactive and too sensitive and it causes us to respond in ways that interfere with our lives or makes us miserable.
The amygdala is an area deep inside our brains that is responsible for sensing danger and moving us into action when there is a perceived threat. When it senses danger, the amygdala takes over from the thinking part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) and moves us into fight-flight-freeze to keep us safe. It makes neurochemicals and sends them to our bodies to get us ready to fight the tiger, or flee from it. Our bodies feel the the chemicals and know that means we’d better get ready. (These chemicals are what are responsible for the physical symptoms of anxiety: shallow breath, fast heart rate, feeling sick, etc.) This happens unconsciously and in a split second! And the more the amygdala is activated, the more easily it gets activated: pathways in the brain get laid down in patterns of fear response.
We all need our amygdalas. They keep us safe. We stay away from the edge of the cliff or we don’t approach the growling dog. A problem develops when our amygdala gets activated too easily, or by things that aren’t actually a threat, and we don’t know how to signal to it that there is no danger. We need to learn how to tell our amygdala, “All clear!”
In an anxious person, the amygdala senses danger where there actually is none- like a smoke alarm that goes off every time the toast burns. The key to managing anxiety is to recognize that the alarm is a false one. We don’t have to believe everything we think or feel. When anxiety shows up, it’s as if someone has just called to tell you that you won a Caribbean cruise- you just need to pay the $500 luxury fees. “Oh hey, it’s that scam phone call again!” And we hang up.
The good news is that our brains are malleable: as we more frequently send the “all clear” (Hang up that phone! Push the button on the smoke alarm!) when there is a false alarm, new pathways are laid down in the brain and we respond in a different way. We can actually rewire our brains.
Back to Maxine and her night time fears: I used Lynn Lyons’ ‘Worry Brain’ approach to teach her to reset her brain and give her amygdala the “all clear.” This is a broad overview of how we solved Maxine’s night time anxiety. If you are embarking on a Worry Brain project of your own, I absolutely love and can’t recommend enough the book Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents by Lynn Lyons.
Anxiety rule #6: Use the tools.
- I taught Maxine how her brain works and how her amygdala works to keep her safe. Lyons calls this “frontloading” and it’s a crucial part of the project. Maxine learned that when she couldn’t sleep because she was scared, this was because her Worry Brain (amygdala) had shown up and taken over.
Coaching and Practice
- Talking back to her Worry Brain: Maxine learned to talk back to her Worry Brain and practiced when she wasn’t scared. Lyons recommends that a child externalizes their Worry Brain (give it a name and a persona!) and talk back to their Worry Brain. When she wasn’t hijacked, Maxine knew that her fears were unfounded. (This is why reassurance doesn’t work. It appeals to the prefrontal cortex, which isn’t actually working when the amygdala is in charge.) But when the Worry showed up, it was hard to remember. So we came up with a list of phrases that Maxine could say to her Worry Brain to give it the “all clear,” such as “I don’t need you here, Worry Brain” or “Go back to sleep, Worry Brain, I’m safe.”
- Expect Worry to show up. Maxine would also say to Worry, “Here you are Worry, you always show up at bedtime and in the middle of the night. Go away! Thanks!”
- Replace the scary thoughts. You know the exercise “Don’t think of pink elephants”? It’s impossible to NOT think a thought. Instead, acknowledge the thought (“here you are Worry Brain!”) and replace it with something else. We brainstormed other things she could think about. (Later, you’ll see we expanded on this and gave her the option to read in the night to replace the scary thoughts.)
Over the next little bit, Maxine did improve in the area of going to sleep by herself, but she was still coming and getting me in the middle of the night.
I talked to Lynn Lyons (author of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents) and told her I was using the tools, but that it wasn’t working. She looked at me and said, “Well, of course she’s going to keep waking you up if you keep sleeping with her!” It was like a lightning bolt. I needed to not only use the ‘Worry Brain’ tools but I had to be strong for my daughter, even when- especially when- she was unhappy.
Anxiety rule #7: Be strong!
Even if it’s hard, don’t give in to anxiety. Lynn Lyons calls anxiety ‘the cult leader’ for a reason.
I realized we still had more work to do. I needed to lead her back to her bed and leave her there ALONE, ramp up the efforts to get Worry to leave her alone, and also give her a reason to to use the tools.
Lynn said it’s really important to keep in her in her bed. Maxine started to keep books under her pillow and I told her if she woke up and she was scared, she could turn on the light and read. She maybe only did this once or twice, but knowing she could do something other than lie there and be scared made it easier to keep her Worry Brain quiet and go back to sleep.
We also instituted a ‘points’ system to help her want to use her ‘Worry Brain’ strategy. Sometimes with anxiety, there is intrinsic value for a child to want to use the tools. Maybe they really want to learn how to swim, so they’re willing to use their Worry Brain strategy to get over their fear of putting their face in the water. Or maybe they have a fear of dogs and they really want to have playdates at their friend’s house who has a dog.
In our case, Maxine needed something to work toward so she could help herself stay in her bed. We devised a point system. Every time she fell asleep on her own she got a point, and every time she slept through the night without waking me up she got a point. When she got 5 points we had a treat (maybe some cookies or french fries out- usually food now that I think about it!)
And of course, I gave her a ton of empathy about how hard this was and how much I understood that she really wanted me to sleep with her.
Anxiety Rule #8: Give your child something to work toward.
In peaceful parenting we don’t recommend rewards, as they interfere with intrinsic motivation. In some cases though, children will not be able to see the intrinsic reward so we need to add an extrinsic reward.
Dear reader, it worked. My daughter still LIKES me to sleep with her, but she doesn’t need me to. We got her a giant stuffed animal as a substitute mama.
Last week she said, “Mama, I can sleep facing the wall again. I don’t need to watch the door anymore to make sure no one’s going to come in.”
Tonight I read this post to her to make sure she approved. She said, “Hearing it all together makes me so proud of myself!” Indeed. I am also so proud of her and what she has accomplished in taking control back from her ‘Worry Brain.’
Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 11, 14, and 18). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Enjoy your kids again! Find her at sarahrosensweet.com