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A sensitive 8-year-old can’t sleep through the night

(iStock/María Alconada Brooks/Washington Post illustration)

Q: Any recommendations for getting a nervous 8-year-old boy to sleep through the night? He wakes up at least once a night. He thinks our house is haunted (hears house-settling noises at night, “footsteps” in his room, etc.). Kids at school last year also told him that the school was haunted, so that probably started it. We are now on month six of no sleep, and he has only slept through the night a handful of times.

A: Thank you for writing in. 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, because of genetics and environment, take in more sensory information, and it leaves our nervous systems exhausted from being on heightened alert. Being a sensitive person isn’t a disorder; it’s a personality trait. Researchers say that this accounts for roughly 20 percent of the population, and many parents can tell you that they knew their babies were sensitive from the start. It can be hard for a sensitive person to come to rest, but it is never just a choice. A sensitive person would love to feel settled; it takes a little more work and self-knowledge.

One thing to be aware of, though, is that it is easy for a sensitive child to turn into an anxious child. The pervasive feeling of unease can begin to feel unmanageable, and the nervous system will do whatever it needs to do to calm itself down. For instance, when your son awakens at night, his brain will fight to stay awake to stay alert and ready. It sounds as if you have an anxious child on your hands right now.

Luckily, there are many resources to help guide you. My favorite book about parenting an anxious child is Eli R. Lebowitz’s “Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD.” Lebowitz lays out an easy and clear plan that can help you work with your son regarding sleeping and ghosts, rather than swinging from one extreme to the other, such as completely ignoring it, which will make the anxiety worse, or making extreme rules that don’t involve him.

Using a cooperative approach won’t be a quick solution to this sleeping issue, but we aren’t looking for fast; we’re looking for effective, respectful and long-lasting solutions that will grow your son’s courage and appreciation for his nervous system. Please remember that he needs to live and thrive with his sensitive self, so it’s best to work with him to grow his skills rather than to stop behaviors. If you try to stop these behaviors, they will surely pop up in another form down the road.

For now, pick up Elaine Aron’s “The Highly Sensitive Child” and the anxiety book by Lebowitz. As you start reading, do your best to make sure that your home is calm and that there aren’t scary books or shows on, especially before bedtime. Begin to assure your son that there is nothing wrong with him; his brain is trying to keep him safe. His imagination is supercharged, and that can be a superpower! Reading these books will help you create plans with your son that will smooth the nights.

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out for support; it can be frustrating, exhausting and utterly confusing to parent a sensitive child, especially if you aren’t wired this way yourself, so finding a coach to guide you through this would be a balm for your own tired and weary soul. Good luck.

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