Sleep Problems After a Move

My seven-year-old son is having problems sleeping in his own room. We have moved to a new house and he screams and cries every night when we try to put him to bed. He only feels comfortable in our bed or on the floor of our bedroom. My husband and I are at our wits end. What should we do?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your son is likely experiencing stress, related to the transition of your recent move. Children often become very attached to the places and things of their surroundings, particularly if they have been in one location for their whole lives. While moving can hold much excitement for us as parents if we are transitioning to a more desirable place, it often contains loss for children that goes unrecognized. And it can be difficult to attend to the unique needs of each child during a period when your energies are focused on re-establishing your new residence.

Your "son's room" has literally disappeared on him! It may take some adjustment to make this new room his own. It is not too late to consider a transitional ritual that might help ease your son's anxieties. If possible, consider visiting his old home, or look at pictures of his previous room. Ask him what he liked about it and what he misses. If the move caused a change in his school, teacher or friends, acknowledge these changes. Make room for your son's tears or anger if these reactions arise. Simply reflect his feelings. Be careful not to try to talk him out of any of the feelings he reveals to you. Once his "negative" feelings are expressed, he will be more available for attachment to his new surroundings.

It is natural for children to feel angry about being uprooted without any sense of control over their situation. And rituals can help your child adapt. One mother staged a moving ritual for her three children by taking a family "field trip" through the old home (in its empty state), saying "good bye" to it, the yard and the old neighborhood. Later, when they moved into their new residence, she involved her children in setting up their bedrooms and they walked through the new house with a burning piece of sage to symbolically "clean the space of old energy and welcome their new family." The Mom felt that the new house ritual helped them to claim the new space and make it their own. This particular mother was aware of the attachment she and her family had to their old place, and sensitive to the fact that the new house did not yet feel like home.

Identify the changes that the move has precipitated for your son. Use your own instincts and creativity as your guide for acknowledging these changes and helping your son adapt to his new situation. Refer to Rachel Biale's book We are Moving (Tricycle Press, Berkeley) for further ideas and discussion about the stresses of moving on a child. It is likely that his feelings are presenting themselves towards the nighttime because they have been suppressed during the day. His need to sleep close to you may be his way of feeling safe enough to let go and fall asleep. Let your son know that you believe his difficulty is natural and due to the new changes he is experiencing, and that you are certain he will adjust with time.

Continue to develop a bedtime ritual in his room, reading him stories and tucking him in with his favorite stuffed animals or toys. Some transitional object that makes him feel his connection to you and your availability to him at night could also help. A toy phone that represents communication or ways to call for you if he needs you might give him the psychological link to you that he needs to feel increased security in the night.

If your son continues to show stress beyond two or three months following the move, consult a child therapist for more support and guidance.

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