A worry is a repetitious thought that constantly nags away at us, growing in importance every time it returns unresolved. We worry for lots of reasons, primarily to try to gain control of situations we really have no control over – the weather for an important event; being judged by other people; or whether we or another person will be safe.
Excessive worry bypasses the prefrontal lobe which regulates rational thinking and instead activates the amygdala; the emotional centre of the brain, the part that controls our fight or flight reflex. This primitive reflex is there to keep us safe from real danger. In other words – no time for a plan we need to get out of here or hide, whichever, do it NOW!
Disproportionate worry about things we can’t control can result in this useful mechanism in the brain becoming overactive, releasing excessive amounts of adrenaline which in turn causes us to see dangers that aren’t really there or simply overestimating the threat of danger. Ultimately, this emotional state of mind makes it hard, if not impossible to find solutions to life challenges.
At bedtime, the body is moving into its natural circadian rhythm (your body’s sleep/wake cycle), as the room gets darker your melatonin production is going up signalling to the brain that it’s time to rest. But for those with worries or anxiety their state of hyperarousal is fighting their circadian rhythm. Their mind spins, they replay all the events of the day, filling their thoughts with what-ifs, conversations where they should have said things differently; and what terrible things may happen as a consequence.
In children, whose brains are still busy learning, thoughts and fears get mixed up with imagination and stimulation. They fill information voids with any reference. I once interviewed a ten-year-old boy whose sister had suffered a brain injury. He had not been allowed to visit her while her physical injuries looked scary and only minimal explanations had been provided of her condition, his parents simply intended to spare him from the upset. However, upon seeing her vacant look – a symptom that often accompanies a brain injury, the boy had no information. He explained to me that he could see his sister’s body, but that she was in some way missing. That night in bed, he convinced himself that she had, in fact been taken over by an alien being and that he was the only one that had noticed.
It’s easy to see how, when children have been watching or reading about monsters in the cupboard, dinosaurs coming back to life, or witches who eat children; their small concerns turn easily to fear of the dark, nightmares and anxiety.
In order to help a child learn good sleep habits we need to check-in on their mental health. For most children their worries are likely to be straightforward things like going somewhere new, feeling guilty or upset about breaking something, feeling angry with someone.
Creating this quiet and safe space while giving your child the opportunity to talk while you listen is a real gift. It allows you to support and guide them through a logical thought process helping them to dismiss fact from fiction. It also sets the foundation of a healthy relationship between you, where your child knows they can bring any problem to you knowing that you will listen with love.
1. Always acknowledge their feelings as important and relevant.
2. Don’t reinforce the negative, rather seek to understand the route cause.
3. Try to re-frame their thinking, offer them the bright side of the same situation.
4. Provide some strategies to help them feel better.
5. Keep it simple.
Unfortunately, some children have worries that are both real and complex: divorcing parents, sick or dying relatives or pets, violence or abuse and dealing with these worries will be the subject of a later blog.
Having checked-in with our child’s mental health and allayed any concerns we can continue to snuggle up with a bedtime story. A child with worries needs to feel particularly safe, that they can count on you no matter what, so here are two books that help to reinforce that message:
If your child is struggling to articulate their feelings and you can’t settle them, try reading Listening to my Body by Gabi Garcia, first. See if this book helps to decode your child’s feelings so that you can deal with them and then move on to the unconditional love books. I understand that this might be the last thing you need on a busy weekday, but believe me, it’s better than broken sleep caused by a nightmare.
Check back with me next week we’ll be finding bedtime story solutions for busy parents.