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Solve Your Big Kid's Sleep Problems

The Anxious Sleeper

"I've tried everything," complains Lauren Coles*, 9, of Elmhurst, IL, "and I just can't fall asleep." The later it gets, the more worried Lauren becomes. If her parents retire before she's asleep, she panics and begs them to stay up.

When all's quiet at night and it's time to make the transition to sleep, fears often surface—about tests at school, the scary TV show she just watched, and what would happen if Dad was snatched by aliens or Mom was attacked by chipmunks.

Preadolescents can be especially vulnerable as their lives get more crowded with homework, sports practices, clubs, and socializing. When they want to sleep, they're so hyped they can't. It's been widely reported that teenagers' biological clocks change, leading them to stay up later at night even though they still need to rise early for school, but kids 9 to 12 can be affected too, says Dr. Wilkoff. By sixth grade, this lifestyle leaves many children chronically sleep deprived, according to a study last year by researchers at Tel Aviv University. Such kids truly need a calm wind-down to the day, Dr. Wilkoff continues. Curb wild play, suspenseful TV, video games, and books (this may include Harry Potter ones for some children) an hour or so before bedtime.

Well before lights-out, explore what's on your child's mind. "A lot of highly motivated, type-A kids are obsessed with worrying, 'How will I do tomorrow?' in terms of schoolwork and social situations," Dr. Wilkoff notes. Don't dismiss concerns, because even if they seem irrational, they're serious to your child. Instead, Dr. Wilkoff suggests, "say, 'Let's write down what you're thinking about, so we can get the worried thoughts out of your head and onto the paper.'"

Also, show your child ways to distract herself from stressful thoughts. "Ask her if she can travel, in her imagination, to the most beautiful place she's ever seen, and assure her that she can go there in her mind whenever she chooses," suggests Barbara Kay Polland, Ph.D., professor of child development at California State University at Northridge.