Calming older kids’ bedtime fears

At Amazon: What to Do When You Dread Your Bed: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Problems With Sleep (affiliate link)

Interesting conversation with a friend about his 9 year-old daughter’s fear of going upstairs to bed by herself.

He was bewildered because his daughter’s afraid to go to bed even with the promise of a parent following her up a few minutes later.

Surely, he wondered, not unkindly, she should have grown out of this by now?

Over the years my kids have had bouts of bedtime fears. I too was surprised by how long they persisted. There would be months of uneventful bedtimes and then, suddenly, something would keep one of them up.

My tolerance for irrational bedtime fears was at an all-time low when my kids were older and more mature in so many other areas of their lives. If it were public speaking or some other “normal” fear I would have been Understanding Helpful Mom. But afraid to go to bed? Didn’t we get over that years ago? I had little sympathy and even less patience. Looking back, I was jerk about it and probably prolonged the problem.

It took me too long to accept that fear at bedtime, like any irrational fear or phobia, can’t be reasoned or “disciplined” away.

Once I realized this was a problem to solve with my kids (not something they were doing to delay bedtime), we made progress.

In my son’s case, bedtime fear was grounded in anxiety about schoolwork. His mind would cycle through every unfinished project and he couldn’t settle down.

The answer was a series of structured breathing exercises plus a calming mantra he could repeat. Giving his mind something productive on which to focus made all the difference. It took about two weeks of guiding him through the meditation until he could do it consistently by himself.

My daughter’s bedtime fear had more to do with boredom. She couldn’t stand being bored at night so would stay up late reading or drawing. Eventually she would be the only one awake in the house and that would creep her out.

The solution was so simple it feels silly writing it out: my husband set a “lights out” alarm on his phone, and one of us would go up, kiss her goodnight, and turn out the lights. It was well before our bedtime, so she would hear us knocking around the house as she fell asleep. That, combined with the breathng exercises we taught her brother, was what she needed. The fix wasn’t immediate, but eventually it worked.

For guidance, I relied on the workbook What To Do When You Dread Your Bed. Not only does the book help kids normalize their feelings about bedtime, it presents a series of exercises for the whole family including (for those who need structured rewards) a “pass” system for staying in bed. We didn’t use the bedtime passes, but the other exercises helped us get to the root of each of the kids’ bedtime problems.

Who else has helped older kids through their bedtime fears? I’d love to hear how you handled it. (Scroll down to comment.)


  1. says

    Thanks for this post. It’s so easy to try to “discipline” the problems away, or to (wrongly) feel like the kids are just doing it to ruin our evening. Reading your post, I realized that this was exactly how I felt when I was a kid (how could I have forgotten?!) and helped me become more understanding.
    Perhaps I would have done better to create a better sleep routine while they were toddlers as taught by baby sleep expert Joleen Dilk Salyn of here: For older kids, I think your right – working together is key.

  2. Asha Dornfest (Parent Hacks) says

    Thanks, Lindsey. Isn’t it odd how we forget? Don’t get me wrong, sometimes kids DO mess around, and if you don’t have some boundaries in place everyone suffers. But too many times I try to talk my kids out of their fears. The irony is that I myself was a kid with LOTS of fears AND my parents got really mad at me about them AND it made me feel ashamed. And yet here I still needed to go through my own learning process with my own kids.