Q: Lately my 4-year-old has been waking up in the middle of the night, crying. He doesn’t appear to know where he is and it takes quite a bit to calm him down. His mother and I just separated and he goes back and forth between our homes every couple of days and I attribute it to that, but I’m not sure, and I’m not sure what to do about it. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: Before we get to the good ex-etiquette aspect of my answer, let’s take a look at what’s going on and why your child may be manifesting these behaviors. An educated guess, and I emphasize guess, is that your child is experiencing “night terrors.” Night terrors are different from nightmares in that they originate in a different part of the brain and while a child may remember a nightmare the next day, they have no recollection of a night terror.
Night terrors are most often seen in ages 4 to 12.
If this is a night terror, there are quite a few things that could be contributing to them, from being overtired to taking a new medication. Stress is also a common factor, as well as sleeping in a new environment or being away from home.
Now here’s the good ex-etiquette part of my answer. The first thing you do is consult with his mother. (Ex-etiquette for Parents Rule No. 2, “Ask for help if you need it.”)
Since you just separated, that may not be the first thing you want to do, but separating may be the contributing factor to your child’s problem and you and Mom have to figure this one out together. (Good Ex-etiquette for Parents Rule No. 1, “Put the children first.”)
Although separated parents may take it for granted that their child will go back and forth between their homes, the back and forth life may not be the best parenting plan for your child.
Your child may be one of those children who do not do well under those circumstances. If so, the unselfish thing to do is to decide with his other parent which would be the best primary home and look for additional time with the other parent by being more flexible with the schedule. That may mean he sleeps primarily at one home and visits the other on weekends. Rather than full overnights every couple of days, dinner visits may be more appropriate until he gets older and more accustomed to his parents no longer living together.
Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder ofbonusfamilies.com.