THE BLOG
02/29/2016 05:39 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2017

What Keeps Your Child Up at Night and How You Can Help (Part 2 in a 3-Part Series)

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Childhood fears are common, but they can have a powerful impact on a child's outlook, behavior and ability to sleep. Sometimes, parents know and understand their child's apprehension (see Part 1). Other times, however, parents may not be aware that their child's fear is based on their own behavior -- like giving them inconsistent messages.

Children Need Boundaries

Children depend on parents and caregivers to set consistent rules and structure an environment that is predictable. Children may not always like when parents say "no," but the truth is they feel secure when they know that parents mean what they say. Boundaries reinforce trust, and trusting parents is a child's foundation for building relationships.

It's normal to "no, no -- yes" our children at times; we get busy, we love our kids, and we may not even realize we're doing it. But, to help our children feel secure and prepared to handle change, we need to be clear and consistent on the structure we set.

When parents and caregivers are unpredictable, children don't feel secure. Some older kids can voice their confusion, "You say one thing, Dad, and then change your mind. I don't feel like I can count on you." Younger kids may not be able to, and this may show up in disturbed sleep.

When your child asks you for something, from the preschooler who wants to eat an unhealthy snack to a high schooler who wants to stay out until 1 a.m. on a Friday, give yourself time to make the best decision for your family:

  • First, stop and take a few deep breaths.
  • Then, engage in a conversation: "That does look like it might taste good, but it's not very good for your body. It might give you a tummy ache. Remember this other snack that you love -- let's try that." "Why do you want to stay out until 1 a.m.? Where exactly would you be and with whom? Will a parent be there?"
  • Assess the child's reaction and information before you make a decision. If the young child says a friend told her how yummy the treat is, you have choices. You can say, "Let's think about it. Maybe it's a better after-dinner treat than a pre-nap snack." You don't have to say no. Assess your older child's reaction. Does he or she look put-off by your questions. Is he comfortable with you calling the adult that will be supervising? Take your time to evaluate whether your child is better off if you say no, and the stick with your decision.

Establish a Sleep Routine

Make sure that any decision you make fits with your lifestyle and you will be able to stick with it. In addition to setting boundaries, it's important to establish a sleep routine that works for your child, and adapt it as your child grows (see Part 3). It's also healthy for parents to establish a sleep routine for themselves. Not only will you set a good example for your child, you'll sleep better, too!