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Seven-Year-Old Won't Go to Sleep

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: Can you provide resources on discipline for a seven year old? We are having a nightmare problem with my daughter's sleep habits. We start bedtime at 9 p.m. but she plays around with excuses of sickness and fear and gets out of bed repeatedly. We have taken away privileges and given consequences to no avail. Help, help, I'm going mad.

A: I am uncertain by your phrase "a nightmare problem with my daughter's sleep habits" as to whether you mean your daughter is having problems with nightmares and is stalling about going to bed, or you meant that your daughter's complaining of sickness and fear when bedtime arises was a "nightmare" of a problem for you. In an effort to help, I'll offer a few suggestions for both situations. First, although this behavior pattern is obviously annoying you, giving your daughter consequences and/or taking away privileges is inappropriate and is not going to help the problem (as you have already seen). If she's frightened, feels "sick," and/or is having nightmares, she isn't doing anything wrong --- she's just having some serious problems, as most kids do at one time or another, with going to bed. She's clearly anxious and/or frightened about going to bed, and at age seven, if she continues to exhibit these behaviors in spite of getting punished for them, she truly needs understanding and not more punishment.

You need to explore with her in the daytime hours, not around the anxious bedtime hours, what might be troubling her ... school, family problems she might be picking up on, a lack of time spent with her parents/friends, a recent death, accident, separation, a frightening incident, movie, TV show, etc. Usually, whatever is causing a child's bedtime anxieties, fears, and nightmares is a manifestation or continuance of things that are troubling them in their everyday life, during daytime hours. If your daughter is experiencing and waking up from nightmares, make sure they are nightmares and not night terrors. She will be able to talk to you about the content of her nightmares whereas night terrors make kids wake up screaming and when you attend to them they are not fully conscious. Kids will most likely push away from being physically comforted from night terrors and will awaken with no memory of the event.

While you are slowly finding out what is at the root of your daughter's nighttime fears and "stalling" and getting up, please be gently reassuring to her and physically comforting to her as you reassure her that you are going to help her be able to have a happier time going to bed. Treat her with kindness and not with blame and frustration. Abide with her. She's not trying to make your life miserable; she's trying to deal with some anxieties that are overwhelming her. Sometimes reading stories during the daytime about kids who have nighttime fears and who deal successfully with them is a good thing to do. You may also want to read Dr. Richard Ferber's book, Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, for some additional ideas.

Good luck. Your little girl and you will soon be over this hump. If it persists unabated for three or more weeks, it might be a good idea to consult a child therapist.

More on: Expert Advice

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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