“Hi, I’ve been using the Hand in Hand tools for a few years but my husband has never really been on board. I’ve modelled using the Tools – and over the years he used to help me with Special Time when they were little, and he’s watched me hold them through their tantrums, instead of scolding them and sending them off. We are now separated, and while we are on the same page in many ways around parenting, my husband has been pushing our son, who is 12, to sleep in his own room.
“Yes! I still co-sleep with all three of my kids 13, 12, and almost 11. LOL! But my husband is worried that my son is too old to still “sleep in mama’s bed”, and is afraid it’ll make him “soft”, etc. I have to say, I DO want my son to grow up to be a tough guy like dad. I still believe in masculinity, but I also believe in emotional intelligence. So, part of me sees his point, but the other part of me doesn’t mind them being in there with me and I know they have always felt better sleeping with me. Do I talk to dad, who likely won’t hear what I have to say? Do I let son sleep in my room and not tell dad (something I’d rather not do)? But it’s because I don’t mind them being in there with me and I know they have always felt better sleeping with me. Do I stick to dad’s wishes, knowing that son will be okay…and there are other ways to connect and make him feel safe? ”
Such good questions! I think there are several issues here, two of which are co-sleeping with older children, and managing your relationship with your ex-husband.
We have always had musical beds at my place – four places to sleep, three people, and who sleeps where depends on what is going on for them at the time. And that hasn’t changed much now that my child is adolescent. I think sharing the same sleeping space can be a lovely way to quietly “fill up the connection cup”, and that doesn’t stop working just because our children might be taller than we are.
My friend has a small pull-out bed in her 15-year-old daughter’s room – it’s her daughter’s room, not a shared room, but mum is happy to make excuses to camp there! It will stay that way for a while, and then circumstances change, and mum moves out for a while, or is booted out in a flash of independence from her daughter. My friend says “It is just easier – my daughter starts revving about the time I tend to want to go to sleep. I can lie in bed, getting ready for sleep, so to speak, and she will tell me about her day, or about something that she’s been thinking about, or that she wants to do. It is an important close time.”
So I don’t think we need to get rigid with our older children about sleeping arrangements.
Sleep is Separation
It’s worth remembering, however, that sleep is experienced by children as a separation. Sometimes, feelings about separation bubble up at bedtime. So there might be some valuable listening to be done if you do decide to bring a limit around sleeping separately. Those feelings may be giving you boy a hard time in many aspects of his life, and listening at bedtime may be the place he can release them.
Be prepared for this – if there are feelings driving “off-track” behaviour – in this case, reluctance to sleep alone – then those feelings will rise to the surface when you propose a limit – in this case, that you sleep separately.
Overly long bedtime rituals, and difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, can be a sign that your child is carrying some feelings that they are looking for an opportunity to offload.
These feelings will, most likely, be giving them trouble in other places, although as they get older, they get better at masking feelings which, when younger, bubbled up in tears or tantrums. So if the idea of sleeping apart brings up feelings for your child, that is a sign that you have a small or large emotional project on your hands*.
Start with some good, hard rough play before bedtime, where they get to win, but you give them some resistance to push against. Or do some Special Time. That creates the sense of connection, which will give you the room to bring a gentle but firm limit – “tonight you need to sleep in your own bed”. If things are primed right, this might bring up the feelings.
(I like to think of it like a “relationship bank account” – connection builds credit in the account – Special Time, time spent together following your child’s agenda, laughter-filled play. Limits, on the other hand, use up the credit. For limits to go well, you need not to be going into debt – “into the red” – in your relationship bank account. So you need to build credit – taking opportunities to build a connection with your children when you can.)
For more on this read Keeping Closer to Your Teen: Why Parents Need Flexibility
Bring the Limit, and then Listen
Then you announce the limit or start to put it into practice – rearranging beds to accommodate sleeping separately, for instance. If your child starts to get upset, plan to Staylisten. Know that it doesn’t really matter who ends up sleeping where – that isn’t the issue.
Don’t despair if you tire of listening before your child has happily gone off to bed by themselves, having worked through the feelings. When you’ve had enough, you can always decide to give up on the project and sleep together another night. You will have another opportunity to bring the limit again, at a time when you have the reserves, to see if there are still some feelings lurking behind bedtime difficulties. The point is not to train your children to sleep alone, but to help them release the feelings that are getting in the way of everyone getting a night of good sleep, together or alone.
If you decide that sleeping apart is the limit you want to hold, then make sure that you do plenty of connecting time at other times. The bedtime limit is just that – a limit. Limits use up credit in our relationship with our child – by definition, we are nudging (or pushing) them in a direction that they wouldn’t choose to go alone. Trust that listening to the feelings that bubble up when you bring the limit will ease up many things for your child, not just sleeping.
But when you are bringing a firm limit, especially about something that your child has used to comfort and reassure themselves, you need to make sure that they have times with you when they are very clear that you are on their side. Special Time is a great way to do this.
Co-parenting – What You Can Control
Managing dynamics with co-parents who are not part of your household can be tricky. It will depend on the state of your relationship whether you take it up directly with his father or not. But what I do know is that children have a remarkable capacity to handle differences in approaches between parents.
What you need to focus on is what you can control – your connection with your child, and your preparedness to listen. That will carry him through any difficulties he encounters as he tries to negotiate his father’s expectations of him. If his Dad is hard on him, then you may need to be softer – you may need to provide more of the connection side of the relationship.
What Is Your Child Really Telling You?
Never underestimate the power of listening to your child. He may tell you directly how he is feeling. Or he many raise things indirectly, by way of an “issue” such as not wanting to sleep alone. Few of us did were listened to much as children, so it’s hard for us to understand that being listened to is a KEY component of mental health.
If he feels safe to tell you about how hard things feel, your boy can endure more and work out how to find the good that his relationship with his father might offer.
Many times, you don’t have to fix the problem. You just need to listen, and connect, and your child will find their way through.
Use the ideas here to help you get clear on how you want to move forward, and let us know how it goes.