Ask the Experts

Q: “How Can I Get My Son to Sleep in His Own Bed Without Sparking Anxiety?”

For children with ADHD and anxiety, bedtime can be wrought with emotion. Not only is their busy brain likely to keep them alert, but their fear of being alone or missing out may mean they end up in your bed. Here’s how to beat separation anxiety at night to help your ADHD child go to bed alone.

Q: “No one in my family sleeps in their own bed. My older son, age 9, sleeps beside me in the ‘big bed’ and his little brother, age 5, sleeps beside his dad in a tiny twin bed. If we sneak out, the little one wakes up no matter the time. We’d love to tuck them in and then go downstairs to reconnect, but we can’t. We tried so hard to sleep train our eldest, who has ADHD, anxiety, and dyslexia. It just didn’t work. He’s exhausted and so is his brother and I feel it really affects his moods and ability to be less stressed. I am at my wits end about their bedtime routines.” – PeachyMom

Hi PeachyMom:

Before we dive in, I need to ask if you have discussed your situation with your children’s doctor or therapist? As much as I am going to try to give you my best advice, I would also like to recommend that you seek the guidance of a medical professional who can add a layer of support that I am not trained to do.

Your son may have general and separation anxiety, so rest assured, I am not going to recommend that you pull the bandage off in one quick motion. A gradual approach is best. So my advice would be to focus on getting your 9-year-old son to sleep in his own bedroom with you providing emotional and physical support to help manage his anxiety and develop new sleep associations.

Here are a few strategies that have worked for me as a parent and for my coaching clients:

1. Make your child a partner. Sit him down when it’s quiet, you’re calm, and it is not bedtime. I always find getting out of the house produces the most productive conversations. Lay out the goal. Be honest, sensitive and focused solely on his needs (not yours). Ask him what he feels about the situation? What does he think could possibly help him sleep in his own room? Reassure him that you will work on this together and at his own pace.

[Free Resource: Routines for Morning and Night]

2. Making changes to his room in some way that signify this is a new beginning would be very helpful. You want to make his room a relaxing and inviting place for him to hang out before he goes to sleep.

Again, let your son make all the decisions. Would he like a new duvet cover? Posters? Music to listen to? Books that are just for bedtime? Even a special stuffed animal that will comfort and sooth him? A small light by his bedside with a dimmer that he can control will do just that… make him feel in control.  And don’t forget a chair for you! Yes, perhaps you two can pick out “your” special bedroom chair. This small act might help to reassure him that his new bedtime ritual includes support from you.

3. Start slowly and build. What does that look like? Perhaps for the first week the goal is for him to fall asleep in his own room and you will stay with him until he does. But if he wakes up in the middle of the night and feels anxious, he is allowed to come into your room and sleep in the sleeping bag or air mattress on the floor. Not in your bed.

As time goes on you can graduate to consistent check-ins. For example, you can tell your son you don’t have time to stay in his room with him while he falls asleep, but you will be back to check on him in 10 minutes. And do it! Remind him he has books, stuffed animals, and anything else to help him fall asleep or even keep him company. After 10 minutes, come back to do your check-in. Keep it unemotional and non-conversational. If your son is awake, give him a kiss on the head or cheek, ask how he is doing and again tell him you will be back in 10 minutes.

[Free Resource: 13 Parenting Strategies for Kids with ADHD]

4. FOMO no more. Here’s an unconventional idea that I used to do when my kids were younger to help them go to sleep. Both my kids had FOMO (fear of missing out). For whatever reason, they felt that they were “missing out” on something super fun or exciting in the house when they went to bed. Trust me they were wrong. So I would bring my “tasks” into their room to show them what they were “missing.”

They would watch me fold laundry, read emails, pay bills, go through catalogues, make to-do lists, open mail. Eventually they would fall asleep (perhaps from boredom!) feeling secure. They figured out they were not missing out on anything fun and could picture what I was doing and where I was doing it in the house. That visualization and knowing I was thinking of them helped their separation anxiety dissipate.

5. Heap on the praise. I’m sure you know this, but this is when rewarding him for any small step toward the goal is needed and appreciated! Set up small goal for him to work toward, reward him accordingly, and sing his praises.

And remember, eventually they do outgrow this. He just needs to do it in his own way and on his own time.

Good Luck!

[Free Resource: What Not to Say to a Child with ADHD]

ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to the ADHD Family Coach here!