A: Thanks for writing. Six months is a long time to have interrupted sleep. I feel for your whole family.
You describe your son as a “nervous 8-year-old boy”, which leads me to believe that he was probably born with a sensitive soul. Some of us, due to genetics and environment, absorb more sensory information, and this leaves our nervous system exhausted from being on heightened alert. Being a sensitive person is not a disorder; it’s a personality trait. Researchers say that’s about 20% of the population, and many parents can tell you they knew their babies were susceptible from the start. It can be difficult for a sensitive person to rest, but it’s always just a choice. A sensitive person would like to feel good; it takes a bit more work and self-knowledge.
One thing to be aware of, however, is that it is easy for a sensitive child to turn into an anxious child. The pervasive feeling of unease may begin to feel unmanageable, and the nervous system will do whatever it needs to do to calm down. For example, when your son wakes up at night, his brain will fight to stay awake in order to stay alert and ready. Sounds like you have an anxious child on your hands right now.
Fortunately, there are plenty of resources to guide you. My favorite book on parenting an anxious child is “Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD” by Eli R. Lebowitz. Lebowitz outlines a simple and clear plan that can help you work with your son regarding sleep and ghosting, rather than swinging from one extreme to the other, such as ignoring him completely, which will make the anxiety worse, or establish extreme rules that do not imply it.
Using a cooperative approach won’t be a quick fix to this sleep problem, but we’re not looking for a quick fix; we are looking for effective, respectful and sustainable solutions that will develop your son’s courage and appreciation for his nervous system. Remember that he needs to live and thrive with his sentience, so it’s better to work with him to develop his skills than to stop his behaviors. If you try to stop these behaviors, they will surely show up in another form down the road.
For now, take Elaine Aron’s “The Highly Sensitive Child” and Lebowitz’s book on anxiety. When you start reading, do your best to make sure your home is quiet and free from scary books or shows, especially before bedtime. Start assuring your son that there is nothing wrong with him; his brain is trying to keep him safe. His imagination is supercharged, and it can be a super power! Reading these books will help you create plans with your son that will sweeten the nights.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help; Parenting a sensitive child can be frustrating, exhausting and completely confusing, especially if you are not wired that way yourself, so finding a coach to guide you through it would be a balm for your own. tired and weary soul. Good luck.
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