“Dear Dr Justin,
I’m really thankful to you to listen my son’s matter.
My family moved here in Australia on 28th March from Korea. There are 4 members in my family; husband, son (7YO), daughter (4YO) and me.
My son’s problem is that he can’t have slept alone in his bedroom. He always wake up 1~3 times in a night and he calls me even when I was sleeping with him. When he called me, If I or my husband didn’t get him, he always went to our room. The same event had happened in Korea so I’d slept with him in his room when we’d lived in Korea.
I asked him, “Do you think what the reason is?”
He said to me ” when I was young, mum left me alone and you went to market.”
That’s actually right. And that day he hid himself in bedroom’s curtain and cried when he saw me.
I want to overcome this matter. How should I do? I sincerely want to help him. Thank you very much.”
It is not entirely unusual for children to want their parents to comfort them or sleep with them, even at the age of seven. Obviously the majority of children settle into a good sleeping routine at younger ages, but some kids still want mum’s hugs in the middle of the night at ages even beyond seven.
Of course, this is not ideal for you or your son. Sleep disturbances can leave everyone grumpy, make learning and physical activity harder, and create challenges for families generally.
Before I make any suggestions, I think it’s important to consider the broader context of what is occurring for your son. There are several factors that may be having an impact on his feelings of security and his sleep patterns.
The first of these is the fact that you and your family have just gone through an international move. Moving house can be de-stabilising for children. The predictability of their environment is gone, there are new routines, new friends, and new demands in a range of different ways. But your move hasn’t just been from house to house – it’s been from one country to another. This means your son has to adjust to new language challenges, new cultural challenges, and an entirely new environment.
Because children thrive on predictability in their environment, your move to Australia is likely to be related to any feelings of insecurity your son may be experiencing.
The second issue you have highlighted relates to the insecurity your son feels about being separated from you based on a previous experience he had when he knew you left him to go to the market. This appears to have had some impact on your son, based on his recollection of the incident.
Your son’s desire to have you close when he sleeps may stem, at least in part, from a combination of these two issues playing on his mind. He is in unfamiliar surroundings, and he has a fear that he might wake up and find you gone.
What can you do?
Let’s start off by considering the strategies that are best avoided:
- Don’t isolate him – doing this will only exacerbate his anxiety
- Don’t make him feel silly – his emotional response is probably perfectly natural. By suggesting he ‘grow up and be a big boy’ simply undermines he sense of self and makes him wonder if he can trust his feelings.
- Don’t force it or make a big deal about it. He will grow out of it. Ironically, the more you rush him, the greater will be his insecurity, and the longer it will take for him to feel safe.
- Don’t make him talk about it – sometimes children are happy to have conversations about their difficulties. Other children prefer not to. If he is happy to talk, then by all means have a conversation. But if he feels uncomfortable talking through this particular issue, I suspect that a conversation will only increase his feelings of insecurity, and exacerbate the problem.
Instead, I suggest the following
- Be patient and compassionate. This may mean that you’ll spend a few more weeks getting up to your son and comforting him. But just as forcing him to get through this fast will slow things down, by slowing down and being patient, I suspect that he will feel better, safer, and more secure. This will paradoxically speed things up.
- Create a routine. Because kids do better with predictable routines, I suggest that you establish a morning and evening schedule that will help your son feel calm and confident about what is to happen and when. Help him feel safe and certain about predictable events and he will experience less anxiety as a result.
- Work with him. Let him feel safe and secure. The safer he feels, the sooner he will feel a lower need to rely on you.