Q Last Christmas my 9-year-old daughter stayed at my sister's house for the night, and during the night she got sick with a stomach flu. Since then she gets anxious if there is a sleep over at a friend or family member's house. I had to pick her up the last time she stayed at her friend's because she started throwing up, she got so anxious.Now she totally refuses to go for any overnight. It is really hard for me, because I cannot leave her anymore if I have an overnight trip. This is so new, because she used to love sleepovers. How should I help her get over this?
Your daughter’s situation is one we often hear at the Child Mind Institute. It’s our natural instinct to want to avoid something that makes us feel scared, so it’s completely understandable that after a negative experience your daughter would want to avoid sleepovers for the fear that it may happen again. However, what we know about anxiety is that avoidance of a feared situation is extremely powerful in maintaining that fear. In your daughter’s case, in addition to staying away from something that makes her feel afraid, she is also avoiding something that she really enjoyed doing in the past. What I like to tell parents and kids is that anxiety can really start to shrink our world if we don’t take action in managing it, so it’s great that you are reaching out for help.
Ultimately, the best way to cope with a fear is to avoid the avoidance, which is easier said than done, but doable when approached in manageable steps. You can help your daughter set gradual goals by first asking some questions to find out more about what she is afraid of. Is she afraid of throwing up? Is she afraid of being away from you? Is it a combination of both? Is there a difference in anxiety between sleeping over at a friend’s house versus a family member’s house? Does proximity to your house matter to her? How anxious would she feel sleeping at home with you away? Based on these answers you could start at place that is less anxiety provoking for her and work your way up.
As a parent, you can be supportive of how your daughter is feeling and help her to understand that the best way to shrink her anxiety about sleepovers is to face her fear. You can assure her that in the beginning facing her fears may seem difficult; however, the more she practices, the easier it will become. Your job will be to help your daughter tolerate her feelings of distress with the goal of practicing being brave.
As you start to work toward doing sleepovers it will be natural for your daughter to experience anticipatory anxiety. With this in mind, it would be helpful for your daughter to understand how anxiety can feel. For example, she should understand that there are physical symptoms that are commonly linked with anxiety (like a queasy stomach) that can make us feel like we are about to get sick even though we aren’t. Skills such as paced breathing, relaxation techniques, and challenging worried thoughts (i.e. “just because my stomach feels queasy doesn’t mean I will definitely get sick”), can be helpful in coping with anxiety.
You can help her create a plan to manage her anxiety — for example, this may involve thinking of fun activities she can engage in while at her sleepover, what she can do if she has a difficult time falling asleep, and a potential plan for how she can be in touch with you and still maintain the ultimate goal of staying over. Additionally, building in a reward system can be very effective in providing your daughter with extra incentive to push through challenging moments in the beginning. The sooner you begin this process the better; the longer your daughter avoids sleepovers the more stuck she can become. If you are looking for outside help, I would recommend finding a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and can help guide a plan for facing her fear.