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A Bedtime Story: Hope or Horror

As parents we have all experienced the following scenario. It is around 9:30 pm. The kids are in bed, the kitchen is in order, the trash has been taken out and the dog has been walked. You finally get to wash your face, brush your teeth and change into pj’s. Now it's time to settle into bed, watch a little TV, check your phone or read your escape novel. Your eyes start to feel heavy and a welcoming sleep is beckoning. All of a sudden a child cries out or appears at your bedside. “I can’t sleep.” Your tired body rushes to pump adrenaline into your system as you struggle to awareness. It's time again to cope with another new crisis. I have experienced and heard that bedtime story countless number of times.

In my previous blog I presented a model for parenting and governance. Our family runs similarly to how our country is designed. Each has a government and citizens. I drew comparisons between a parents actions with those of our President. Continuing with that theme, I would like to contrast the reactions of effective parenting and bad governance on children. Our children as well as our citizens need a good night's sleep!

The ability to let go, trust and find respite through sleep is a very good measure of how well our family/county is performing. Children are the repository of our daily stressors. Like a sponge they soak up everything happening whether consciously or unconsciously around them. At bedtime these emotions now surface and seek resolution. Troubling feelings can keep them from settling into a necessary and secure state of sleep. As we all know poor sleep is bad for our physical and mental health.

It is the role of our parents like a government to facilitate the transition toward restful sleep. Children will test our abilities and patience. Children, particularly young children, are dominated by two major needs: biology and security. To help them, try to stay focused on these needs.

As I have previously pointed out in other blogs, it is important to keep in mind that once a biological flight or fight emergency alarm goes off a person will get a strong energizing jolt of adrenaline into their system. This is a normal reaction preparing us to face danger. Our body however does not know if it is a real or false alarm. Until the body calms down, reasoning will be limited. A child awakens, sees monsters and quickly becomes upset. They can’t reason themselves into control. Yelling will only set off more alarms and delay the process of calming down.

The good parent gets up and begins to bring their own biology under control. Deep breathing and collecting their thoughts, they hug the child and physically share the sensation of calming down. This closeness helps both biological and security needs. As you calm down, the child in parallel gains that powerful emotion by attaching to you. At the same time you check for the for the general safety of the home while beginning a brief survey of the child's health and other biological needs such as toileting or hunger.

Continuing to breathe deeply you take the child back to their own bed. Don’t let a child get too used to climbing into your bed this can set up secondary gain or inappropriate attention for the fear. Your goal is to focus on the two needs. Once the adrenaline passes and they have settled down then a reset of bedtime begins.

A good parent stays focused on the Experience Road. A child having problems sleeping is sending a message that something needs to be corrected. They consider what variables they have under their control to make adjustments. They can consider how the child’s bed sleep area is being affected by noise levels and background sounds, temperature and bed comfort. There are some helpful bedtime rituals such as a mild massage, gentle song and or calming bedtime stories. You can help a child by teaching them to visualize and remember a safe and calm experience they enjoyed. With practice they can use a past good experience as a positive coping response.

More information can also be seen by examining a child’s waking activities. Was there too much or too little physical activity? Did they have a bad day in school? Did the child have too much excitatory screen time before bed? Was there a period of calmness before bedtime? A good parent seeks information and looks for solutions.

An important variable that a good parent can influence is to examine their own fears and insecurities. They may need to work at trying to be positive and optimistic. When this proves overwhelming they will seek help to handle their feelings. Complaining and griping all day will wear away our reserve coping energy. A child’s stress level is strongly connected to their parents level of distress. As our levels of distress go up their levels rise as well. The good parent will remember to say many positive comments daily to their children and with little ones give comforting hugs throughout the day.

The bad parent neglects the biological and security needs of the children. They selfishly focus on their own interests. They now climb out of bed and yell at the child. They shake and hit them while threatening to punish them. The bad parent tells them stories of boogeymen who will take them away and lock them in cages if they don’t go back to bed. Throughout the day they gripe, complain and make blustering frightful comments which in turn increases the child’s levels of discomfort. They send out confusing and contradictory remarks.

In response the child becomes more emotional either angry and frightened or depressed. Some children will act out and violently rebell. These children are restless and on guard for danger. Sleep is not a happy time. With these children sleep does not signal a safe comforting time to let go and trust that you will be protected. They become more insecure. It is a formula for unhealthy minds and bodies.

My observations are applicable to what is happening in our country. The leader of our country is failing to promote safety and security. As citizens we are frightened, angry and more unsettled. Like children we need more messages of safety and security. Letting go and trusting that someone is looking out for our well being is becoming more difficult. Getting a good night's sleep is not so easy. In the morning we have become anxious with finding out what mean spirited messages await us.

In these times leaders need to work harder to be mindful of how our children/citizens are the unfortunate repository of bad parenting/governmental actions. Rather than resort to fighting each other we as a country could benefit by electing leaders with good parenting skills and perspectives. How a child presents is a reflection of their parents.

Good night and calm safe dreams.

Dr. Mike

Clinical psychologist 45 years in practice. Worked with children and adults. Love nature, hiking, photography and drums. Retired living in DC.

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