Tuesday Toolbox: Bedtime and Sleep Issues: Part I

On Tuesdays, we will bring you posts designed to help parents address some of the challenging behaviors their children present.  This is a two-part series on one of the toughest many of us face — how do you get your children to sleep?  And because this issue is so big, we won’t make you wait for Part II — we will bring you it tomorrow!  

October 28, 2014

by: Jennie Murdock

I believe in serendipity…..”an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident”.  As I was preparing to write this, my first post on sleep issues, I opened a recent “MindHealth” report by Dr. Gary Small.  In it he was addressing the issue of “masked depression” and all of its tell-tale signs.  The report reminded me that for sure, most of the children we parent and treat in therapy with serious attachment issues have that masked depression which most assuredly affects their sleep.

DChild Sleepingo you remember as kid the issues surrounding bedtime…….fear of the dark, scary dreams, missing out on the action happening after you went to sleep, not being able to relax and drift off to sleep, muscle aches or tummy aches?  All these things, could and would keep you up.. But some of them are just common territory for children; phases we go through and grow out of, right?

But what if you don’t grow out of them, and what if those issues linger and continue into adulthood?  We now know from extensive scientific studies that lack of sleep is one of the main compounding issues causing depression, weight gain, foggy brain and many other health concerns.  Sleep is vital and crucial to proper brain functioning and life becomes MISERABLE when you don’t get enough sleep.  As normal as these problems might be, to parents of a child with attachment/trauma issues, bedtime can all too often become a warzone rather than a relaxing, peaceful time with “sweet dreams”.

When our children with RAD get into what appears to be a control battle over sleep, it makes otherwise rational parents come unglued and want to take drastic measures to secure a good night’s sleep.  To prevent bedtime wars, I think that every parent needs to consider a few basic premises.

First:  Accept that your children are most likely  depressed, deeply grieving the disruption from their former life (no matter how abusive or awful it was, it is still what they are used to). They are sad and confused, which often comes out as masked depression, and interrupts normal sleep patterns.

Second:  Resolve the attachment and trauma related issues that may be preventing sleep and causing nightmares.  Get a good somatically oriented, integrative attachment therapist to help them proces their feelings.   As your children heal, their sleep will improve.

Third:  Recognize the enemy … it is not your child, it is his/her brain regulation which has gone haywire.  Sometimes just reorienting your perception from seeing your child as “out to get you” to recognizing that there is something deep down inside driving your child to act “out of control” can do wonders to your ability to cope with the situation.

Fourth:  Be a sleuth and keep open to finding the underlying physical/physiological causes of your child’s sleep disruption issues.  Dr. Laurence Heller has written a fabulous book called Healing Developmental Trauma.  His book  describes the GHIA (Global High Intensity Activation) problems our kids have regulating most every system in their body because severe and chronic early stressors/abuse damaged their autonomic nervous systems as well as their central nervous systems.  Sleep is one of the main systems regulated by the autonomic nervous system and it will need lots of help to work properly.

Fifth:  Get your child tested to see which systems of their body are dysregulated, manifesting as hypo or hypervigilant;  hypo or hypertensive,   hypo or hyperreactive, etc.  There are many problems that can cause sleep issues: endocrine, metabolic, nervous,  cardiovascular,  immune,  or skin and connective tissue system problems,  among others. Great Plains Laboratory, Inc.  has wonderful, specific testing for gene deficiencies and much more.  For example, a hair sample test can find heavy metal toxicity from mercury, lead and aluminum, all of which cause brain damage and dysregulation.

Sixth:  Keep trying new approaches to reducing conflict at bedtime until you find one that works for your child;  one size does not fit all.

In my next post, I will discuss some of my favorite bedtime techniques.

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