Helpless with anxiety about sleep for my 3 1/2 year old

Hello Dr. Corwin,

Mellissa here. My husband, Michael and I met with you a couple of months ago at Starbucks. Recap, Emily that had no boundaries, no sleeping routine, and a crazy mother.

I felt her fits were getting very angry and a bit violent (she grabbed me at the neck when I said no to cookies at the grocery store) Well – the detachment for the tantrums is working. She is much better at the answer no. but, I am still going crazy with my husband’s lack of consistency with her.

Tantrums have now shifted from response to the answer no to fits in frustration with her ability to do things. In addition, she still does not sleep at night. I now refer to myself as the bedtime natzi. I have cut out her naps completely.

She does not have the screaming fits as much throughout the night and does not come into our room as frequently. At 8:15 sharp every night we do the same routine for bed by 8:30pm, but she still gets up and turns on her light and plays or reads for unlimited amounts of time and then is miserable in the morning.

I do wake her every morning at 8 am, regardless of her state of wake mode. We only have a screaming fit 3+- times a week in the middle of the night (usually in response to her not being able to dress a Barbie she’s playing with) but she is still staying awake all night. I am going crazy. She is miserable. I think it is because she is so tired.

She has total melt downs in frustration throughout the day. When she can’t tie something, open something, etc. she has complete screaming and grunting fits. It really gets my anxiety going just hearing it. I don’t know if it is because she is tired or because she is just 3.5. I dread waking her up every morning. I know it will be a screaming battle getting her out of bed and I know the day has many more screaming fits to come.

I am being strong and consistent and setting boundaries and sticking with them, but it just is not changing the fits. I reward when she is calm and doing things in the correct frame of mind (daily!) or when she asks for help instead of screaming. We talk about using words to ask for help. But it just is not changing her behavior. When she has a melt down in public, I ignore her or take her to the car (in detach mode) or send her to her room if we are at home. She always says she’s sorry later and seems to know why she was sent to her room. But I just don’t think it’s working. Any more ideas? Helpless with anxiety headaches! Mellissa


Dr. Ann Corwin, The Parenting Doctor Advice
So sorry for your continuing challenges with Emily. Potentially this behavior is all related to not enough sleep…but before we go ahead with trying some more behavorial interventions I would like you to talk to your pediatrician. It is crucial that we not assume that this behavior has nothing to do with a problem that could be physical in nature. So give your pediatrician a call and explain what is happening or go in for a visit and have her checked out for ear infections or something that might explain her anger responses like she doesn’t feel good physically.

Sounds like you are working hard on boundaries, which is excellent and your bedtime routine sounds good too. But, I need to ask you some questions about what you do during the night when she wakes and so I think we need to at least talk over the phone. Give me a call and if you miss me, let me know a couple of convenient times I could call you back at your #.

Also, remember when you are telling her to use her words, at 3.5 years of age, you need to be very concrete with you directives, like “giving her words” you want her to use instead of telling her to use words. Plus, explaining what her feelings are and what you want her to do about her frustrations and anger…a specific tool she is taught by you.

Also, I was wondering why you need to wake Emily at 8 a.m. each morning…?
Lastly, at 3.5 she needs to understand “less about why” she is in her room and instead needs direct consequences for her behavior that have to do with less interaction with you and your husband when she “acts out”!Hopefully we will connect soon, Ann