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Let's talk about ... Your child's emotions and sleep

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

Their cognitive developmental stage, emotions, coping mechanisms and how they deal with stress…can all affect sleep and bedtimes. It’s a minefield, right?

We all want our children to do well at school and achieve to the best of their ability, BUT… even if a child can do the most advanced maths, speak 3 languages, and get top marks at school, if they can't manage their emotions, understand conflict resolution, or handle stress, none of that is really going to matter when it comes to managing day to day life.

All this also influences sleep and bedtimes (and of course lack of sleep also makes it difficult to learn and control our emotions) – and let’s face it, when you have a lot on your mind….it will affect your sleep as an adult too. Do you find yourself over-stretched as a parent trying to juggle kids, house, relationships, work, social life and more, exhausted but never getting a break? It’s tough, I know!

Cognitive Developmental Stages and how they affect sleep

Most parents know that physical leaps such as learning to crawl or walk can affect sleep, but so can their cognitive development, right through to the teen years. Cognitive development has distinct patterns as a child grows, all of which can affect their sleep in various ways. Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development was developed by the prominent Swiss scientist Jean Piaget back in the 1930’s. These are the stages that Piaget believes that all children will go through in the same order, though not necessarily at the same rate:

Sensorimotor stage: birth to 2 years

Preoperational stage: 2 to 7 years

Concrete operational stage: 7 to 11 years

Formal operational stage: ages 12 and up

Young babies learn with their senses (hence the name sensorimotor stage), and at around 8-9 months typically develop object permanence, which is when they start to understand that an object can exist even when it cannot be seen. They also start to understand they are separate to others. This commonly leads to bouts of separation anxiety which often affects little ones in this age group as they can cry and get distressed when they aren’t near their main caregiver. Hence sleepless nights often ramping up at this age! Lots of reassurance, peekaboo games to teach baby things do come back, and remembering it is just temporary will help with this.

In the preoperational stage between roughly ages 2 and 7 years, children are developing and learning rapidly, but are still very egocentric - their thinking is based around their own views of the world and how they are affected. Hence, they won’t be able to appreciate how tired you might be if you are up and down to them all night as all they are concerned about is what they need in that moment!

They are unable to think in logical (problem solving) terms and so will of course still need a parent or caregiver to help with any worries or problems they may have, and these can be magnified at night-time especially when they are wanting to keep their favourite adult close to them constantly, or perhaps experiencing nightmares as they try to process these feelings or new (sometimes worrying) experiences.

Try spending at least 10 minutes of really concentrated, distraction free 1:1 time with your child if you can, before bedtime to lessen the need to keep calling you back for ‘one more drink’ or ‘one more story’ when it is time to go to sleep. Give lots of kisses and cuddles before bed (unless your child doesn’t like this!) and try to stick to a consistent routine so they know what to expect and keep things as calm and stress free before bed as possible.

When children are between the ages of around 6 to 12, they typically start thinking in what is termed the ‘concrete operational’ stage. This means they process in a way of thinking that includes combining things. This includes how to combine, separate, order, and transform objects and actions. They understand that thoughts and actions can be reversed. They will also become capable of logical thought processes, but emotionally will still need guidance, support and comfort if dealing with anything worrying, or when trying to work out the answer to a problem that may be bigger than their intellectual ability or beyond their scope of experience.

Giving them support is important still, but you can also start to give them a few tools to begin to figure things out themselves, (age appropriately of course!) as they are likely to be striving for more independence at this age too.

Helping them to identify and name their emotions as well as modelling how to manage tricky situations will all help. They are beginning to become less egocentric during this stage too and realize that others may see things differently to them.

When children reach adolescence and the ‘formal’ operational stage, after the age of around 12, it marks the beginning of the development of more complex thinking processes. This means they will start forming their own types of abstract thinking and ideas, and may ask more questions, and often push boundaries in their quest to work out where they fit in and what the limits are. You’re likely to get more curiosity and difficult behaviour at this stage, which again may cause sleep disruption, with their mind running wild combined with the fact that teens have a natural shift in their body clock which means they don’t get tired until much later. Plus - fluctuating hormones don’t help either!

Try to be as open as you can with your teens. As hard as it can be, try to keep boundaries in place around getting enough sleep, especially on school nights. Give them time to relax and wind down after school or college, and to talk about any stressors that they may have and help them deal with these.

It’s certainly going to be a rocky time and can bring a plethora of challenges, typically. But again, you’re not alone in it!

Sleep Timings

Many experts recommend 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night for younger children and 8 to 10 hours for teenagers. But is that always easy to achieve? Especially when you are likely juggling so many balls yourself.

You may be tempted to let your child that won’t go to bed easily have more screen or gaming time whilst you get other children to bed, cook dinner, or get things ready for the next day. And then in the morning they are exhausted, as are you. The number of after school activities on offer nowadays can also have an impact if children are out at clubs, swimming, football etc., and then having to complete homework after, as well as fit in dinner a shower, AND wind down time - all of this can mean a much later bedtime than intended, and with many secondary schools typically starting around 8.30am, most older children and teens have to get up much earlier than they naturally want to.

Balancing life is hard – I hear you. I’ve been there. And children can pick up on the stress that you are experiencing.…as much as you might try to hide it. And especially in these uncertain times, of trying to juggle life, deal with financial pressures and try to be the best parent we can be, we are going to let our guard down sometimes of course - none of us are perfect and all of us are just doing our best! That’s not to say all stress comes from home. It can also come from school, peers, other family members, and more significantly now, social media and TV influence.

As our children develop, they require our emotional support and stability to help co regulate them and ensure they are developing resilience and healthy coping mechanisms.

So, what’s the answer if bedtime isn’t going well?

Well, it’s not always easy to make changes and it can just feel easier to carry on going down the path of least resistance, but in the long run the implementation of something that may take a few weeks of hard work, will pay dividends.

First and foremost, routine and consistency are key. If you can implement a gentle but predictable routine, it offers stability to children, especially when other parts of general life can be stressful. I have got lots of information available in other blogs, or you can contact me on how to help with this. It’s simpler with younger children and babies, but with older children, it can be harder to get them on board initially.

However even us adults benefit from following the same routine or pattern before bed, that could be a shower or bath followed by getting in comfy clothes or pjs, reading for a while, before settling down to sleep. Modelling this and talking to older children about the health benefits of getting enough sleep being as important as eating well and exercising regularly will help.

It is also important to offer an open supportive parenting relationship to your child at all ages. Just let them know that whatever they do and wherever they want to be, you will be a safe place for them and somewhere they can come for reassurance without judgement. Parenting will bring with it trials and tribulations, but it’s a normal thing and most kids are curious, so also perhaps remember – you were young once! Also, remain mindful that doing your best is enough, you don’t have to be perfect.

I’ve got many more tips on other blogs and I’m always here to help with any consultations, so please do not hesitate to contact me.

With love, Emily x

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