Go to sleep my dear (little gangster), just go to sleep…
We know that stress affects sleep in a bad way. When stressed we are filled with adrenaline pumping, prepared for the fight or flight thing. Even the passive kind of stress, the kind that makes us want to go hide somewhere, makes us creep with anxiety on the inside, and that makes it impossible to fall asleep.
Children need help coping with their stress. Pretty hands- on too. When stressed, they don’t know what to do. They don’t know what they want or need. When we help them out, solving their problems, find a release for their tension or calming them down – they get it, little by little. They get future references to manage it all better. Well, not next time maybe, but sooner or later it start to work.
Stress can be caused by too much to do and not enough time, by too many things to think about or hard-to-deal-with-responsibilities. We can try to deal with it by breaking complicated things down, writing memos, making lists of priorities, making schedules and cutting out time for reflection and preparation. We can ask for help.
We also know stress can be built up by unresolved conflict, by feeling of guilt or sadness. We need to try and solve those too, by talking it out, making up, make amends if possible, by comforting each other or apologize.
Stress gets to us even when we are in a generally good mood, like when the happy excitement of a party makes us all wound up. We get excited playing video games or watching action movies. All the stimuli calls for reaction, and sitting or laying still just isn’t enough.
Other times it’s tiredness causing the stress. When tired, you just don’t think very clearly. You don’t move as fast, or react as quickly. This makes you frustrated, if you carry a lot of stress within.
This is exactly what happens when a child gets overtired. They turn from slowly dozing off: slightly stumbling, gently swaying and there is usually a bit of stuttering too (this is when they should be put to bed, ever so gently) – to full on crazy-mode. It goes so fast, and then we have the soon to come tantrums to deal with, because the over excited, over tired child will do everything wrong. They want to play with their friend but goes Godzilla and destroys everything, madly laughing. They try to play fight, but hits too hard. They get pushy and throw things about, climb furniture, stumble and fall a lot. Laughter is very close to tears at this stage.
They can’t understand any instructions or rules, and get angry when no one understands theirs, by now quite incomprehensible and over complicated ones. They can’t change their minds even a small bit. It’s like their little brains are on a highway, not looking sideways and not counting on anything other than to step on it. They have no idea where they are going and everything is a bit blurry.
What to do
First of all, try and find a way to get the energy out in a reasonably safe place. Release the pressure of the inside stress. Maybe by throwing some soft pillows, balloons or soft textile balls in the air, volleyball style? Maybe a little dancing or jumping like a frog all around the house? Maybe you can get the kids outside to play a little “catch-me”?
Round it up in a short while, when you are still having fun, before the oh-so-close-tantrums if possible. Prepare them for the end by e.g. giving them a final round of whatever you are up to. One final dance or counting to ten “before the rocket is released and that will be the final and biggest jump of all times!”.
Finish the play-time with a huge hug. It’s just a way of being friendly, and trying to calm them down. Sometimes it works.
Try and stick to the course without getting too upset: get the PJ’s on, the teeth brushed and face washed – but sometimes it’s better to just let go of all principles and put the child to bed as it is. It’s just not worth the fight.
Try and be patient when the overtired child does all the silly tricks they do when they are overtired: running off, jumping on the forbidden beds and such. Maybe you need to carry the child where it needs to go, maybe you’ll have to sit with it on your lap until it decides to open it’s mouth. But do so calmly and gently.
Sometimes you need to be clear: “It’s time to sleep now. No more messing around, You stay here.”
Sooth the child down by gently stroking the back and arms, over the head and hair. Soft gentle massage can do the trick too, if you know how and your child is comfortable with it. It’s actually a way of releasing the calming-down-hormone oxytocine, and it helps the child to quiet down.
Soft classical music or a well known bed time melody also helps with the calming down.
A short bedtime story is preferred over a longer one, when the child is too tired to begin with.
You staying by the bed, or even beside the child in it, usually helps calming a child down. No matter what principles you think you should have, your child usually feels better and safer when you are close.
Sometimes maybe it’s easier for everyone not to take the fight, but making the waking life really dull for the child until it falls asleep out of pure boredom: by you kindly putting it to bed and saying your good nights, but then making clear that now it’s time for you to rest. So you take a seat and start reading something you like. Not being rude, put not paying much attention on the child.
If you have succeeded in releasing all the tension without producing new ones with more conflict, the child will probably fall asleep quite soon.
When it doesn’t work and tantrum-mode is on
If not – and we’ve all been there, with the crying, screaming and wriggling child – we’ll have to improvise. Again as calmly and gently as possible. Trying to discuss or explain things is out of the question: words are not understood at this point anyway.
Holding a small child in your arms to cradle and rock it, can help soothing it down out of pure reflex. Older children sometimes get all worked up into panic-mode and is better off released to wriggle about on their own. You don’t have to make yourself the enemy, but stay close, to see how things are going. Interfere if necessary.
Being the prison guard, staying by the bed or just outside the room, keeping the child from getting up and away is not the best way to end the day but, well, what to do?
Sometimes being quite firm actually helps: “No, you stop NOW!” using a confident, sharp, yet controlled voice. Maybe a grip around the shoulders and firm look in the eyes can create a connection.
Other times we actually need to hold a child, despite of his or her protests. Maybe they play so wild that it’s safer, or we are unable to contact them and stop them from destroying things.
When having a child completely loosing itself in panic-tantrum-mode, remember to breathe, and stay calm. The reaction is sometimes so strong it scares your child too. It’s scared of itself and all the horribly confusing feelings inside. It’s not the devil but a stress reaction that has taken the child’s body, and you’ll have to keep it safe for it until the adrenaline runs off, reaction is over and mind returns.
I’ve been there when a child got post traumatic once, after a painful accident, and it wasn’t pretty. Making ourselves the wall to run into is a hard job, but sometimes, someone’s gotta do it. Our arms can be quite flexible, a bit like rubberbands, so the child can breathe easily, move about and eventually relax without being held hard.
Keep trying with the calming and the comforting efforts. Sooner or later there will be a relaxation. Note that comforting and calming down should feel better when the child is actually calm. We don’t want to reinforce the tantrums and bad behaviors, but we need to deal with them. Be kind when relaxation comes, with all the sobbing that comes with it. This is the time for true comfort. “It’s okay, everything is fine. It’s good you calmed down now.” Don’t analyze what went wrong, not now.
After a stressful evening, sleep can be a bit disrupted by nightmares, sudden crying and in the morning the whole thing will repeat itself. Unresolved conflict is hard. Just try and calm your child down, reminding it that everything worked out fine. It was tired and upset. It’s a new day now and everything will be better.
At least that’s what we’re aiming for.