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Troubleshooting Sleep Problems Your School-Age Child

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Dr. Meg Meeker

Today’s post is the second in a series about sleeping issues in kids. Read the first post on infant sleep here.

Your five-year-old starts kindergarten and suddenly wants to sleep in your bed. Or your previously easy-going, self confident first grader awakens in the night and runs into your bedroom.

What is going on? You rack your brains wondering if he hates school, is being bullied, or if he has some serious psychological issue he’s battling.

Many young children in early elementary school suffer from sleep disturbances. About one third of the children this age that I see in my office experience sleep disruptions. I have come to routinely ask parents of children in elementary school about sleep because it is so common. Here’s where I start.

First, we parents must understand that between ages 5-9, children are cognitively maturing. They begin thinking about deeper issues like life and death. Often they worry about their parents dying but don’t want to verbalize their worries for fear that saying them out loud will make them come true. Many feel superstitious.

At this age, they begin to understand that bad things happen to people and that they and their loved ones could be those people. Since they are young and unable to care for themselves, they worry about what would happen  to them if Mom or Dad died.

Second, many children this age are exposed to more violence, sex, and adult themes on television or the Internet. Some second graders see R-rated movies. I have noticed that parents often invite kids to sleep over at their homes for their child’s birthday party. Believing that their child is “more mature” than his peers, they bring in an inappropriate movie to be watched. They want to be the “cool” parents whose home all the kids want to frequent, so they do things like this.

What inevitably results is children viewing things that scare the daylights out of them. Second grade children can’t handle Jawsor Jurassic Park. Adults can; they can’t. Boys especially become frightened because they feel that as a male, they should be tough and strong, but they realize they aren’t. They never want to admit that they are scared, so they hold their feelings inside. Guess when those fears surface? Yup. In the night.

Finally, many children this age suffer from performance anxiety. They go to school and want to do very well—at their studies, sports, music, etc. These are the quiet, compliant, “good” kids who never give their parents trouble. They do their homework, run faster than their teammates, and practice longer. Because they are so good, parents praise them to friends and then the children feel more pressure to be perfect.

Be careful with these kids because they are ticking time bombs ready to explode one day. Their anxiety to do better builds, and then—you guessed it—comes out in the night, and they can’t sleep. So if you have one of these kind kids in your house, reel him in and make him play. Don’t push him. Let him know that he’s great even if he doesn’t do things perfectly.

Regardless of the origin of your child’s sleep issues, the most important thing that you can do is spend more time with her during the day, gently try to uncover what she’s worrying about. Talk about what might have worried you when you were eight and then ask if she worries about those things. If you spend enough time and gently probe, I guarantee, you’ll get your answers. And when you do, take more time encouraging your young one that it is your job to worry, not his. Talk her through her fears once, twice, as many times as she needs to get over them. The payoff for you both will be a good night’s sleep.

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