why “good nights” are illusive (sleep issues: part 1) – (adoption/foster)

A big obstacle adoptive parents face is their child’s lack of sleep. Many adopted children have a difficult time falling and staying asleep. Sleep issues can wreak havoc on the whole family, and when everyone’s tired, everyone’s grouchy (at least in our family, I’m sure that’s not the case for yours. Insert smiley face.)

Although our daughter, Payton, has made significant bonds with us, she still has some defiant behaviors when she gets excessively tired. I swear her brain shuts off, and ALL logical thinking goes out the closed window.

Obviously sleep is important, and we don’t want the lack of it to produce more negative behaviors that add to our already full list. There are a few reasons why our children don’t sleep well and have difficulty falling asleep. Let’s take a look at three of the main ones:

  • Control – Don’t jump to any conclusions yet. This sounds like something inimical that your child is purposefully doing to you, but it’s not. Their early life was usually chaotic and unpredictable. At a very young age, your child may have needed to protect themselves, fend for themselves, and worried incessantly about their needs being met. This creates a need to control their environment.
    In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Bruce Perry talks about a hurting child’s need for control. “After all one of the defining elements of a traumatic experience – particularly one that is so traumatic that one dissociates because there is no other way to escape from it – is a complete loss of control and a sense of utter powerlessness. As a result, regaining control is an important aspect of coping with traumatic stress. This can be seen vividly in the classic research on a phenomenon that has come to be known as ‘learned helplessness.’”
    Our children may stay awake because it’s one of the few things they can control.
  • Fear – We had major sleep issues with our daughter, Payton. She couldn’t go to sleep, and we never had a smooth transition to bed. We set up the routine, had a calming relaxation time before we put her to bed (included a back rub in bed), but all that didn’t help (although we still follow the same routine every night). We tried the Super Nanny approach that’s proven to work – put the child back in bed without saying a word, you may do it twenty times, but after a few days, they will stay in bed. Nope, that didn’t work either. We could put her back in bed without saying a word dozens of times, if not hundreds, and for months, not days, and it still didn’t make a bit of difference. We were EXHAUSTED! Sound familiar?
    After battling the sleeping issues (she also didn’t sleep well throughout the night, she woke up often) for over a year, we attended a training led by Scott Chaussee. During one of the breaks we asked him about Payton’s sleep problems. He asked if she’d been in a Meth home (this was a training held at the Dept. of Human Services, so many of us has adopted from foster care). We nodded our heads, yeah, she had been in a Meth home.
    Scott said, “Those Meth homes are very frightening, especially at night. She may not have a conscious memory of it, or be able to tell you what’s scaring her, but I would imagine that’s what it is.” He then gave us a plan on how to help Payton calm so she could sleep peacefully. (I will share that plan with you next week.)
    In The Whole-Brain Child, Dan Siegel writes, “Unless kids can make sense of their painful memories, they may experience sleep disturbances, debilitating phobias, and other problems.” Some of our children will never be able to make sense of their traumatic memories. They may not even have a tangible memory of what happened to them. However, I do believe they can heal when attachments are made with their caregivers.
    There are many other fears that can play into a child’s reticence to go to sleep:
    – Fear of the dark.
    – Fear of being alone.
    – Fear of being unsafe.
    – Fear of scary noises.
    – Fear of abandonment.
    Think about yourself and fears you may have had at night, even as an adult. I know for me, if I hear a scary sound in the house at night, I lay awake listening for any other sounds. It keeps me awake and on alert. If I wake from a frightening dream, I have to force myself to stay awake so as to not let the nightmare continue.
    So, we can see that even children and adults who haven’t experienced trauma encounter sleep disturbances. How much more is a child who’s been traumatized going to fear being alone in a room, in the dark, unaware of what’s happening in the rest of the house?
  • Their brains are always on high-alert/Worry – This is partly because of the fear mentioned above, but also because of learned behavior. Our children always feel they need to be alert and watching out for themselves, and when their brain is constantly in a state of hypervigilance, they cannot relax.

In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Bruce Perry writes, “If a baby’s primary metronome – his brainstem – doesn’t function well, not only will his hormonal and emotional reactions to stress be difficult to modulate, but his hunger and his sleep cycle will be unpredictable as well.” This absolutely applies to older children as well.

Now that we know some of the causes of sleep disturbance, what can we do? We want to send a clear and consistent message that our children are safe and loved. The faster your child feels safe, the quicker they will heal, which will lead to a more restful sleep and better behavior overall.

Your hurting child needs to know they can trust you. Next week, I’ll give you step by step ideas on how to build trust at bedtime so your child can rest peacefully.

I also want to offer my apologies. I promised to share those ideas this week, but I felt I needed to help you understand why your child may not be falling and staying asleep first. We can’t truly fix the problem if we don’t know why it exists.

Think about what I’ve said in this post. Our children may not look scared when they come out of their room asking for the next drink, Kleenex, back rub, or stuffed animal. Their crying and whining may seem like a behavior that just irritates you, but there is an underlying cause as to why they aren’t able to fall asleep or why they wake in the middle of the night.

Do your children have sleep issues? What do your children do? Do they have trouble falling asleep? Do they wake up in the middle of the night? I would love to hear from you! See you next week, and until then, I hope you get at least one good nights sleep. 🙂

*The follow-ups to this post are
no really, good night (sleep issues: part 2)
what happens when hurting children can’t sleep?

3 thoughts on “why “good nights” are illusive (sleep issues: part 1) – (adoption/foster)

  1. We’ve been in a very sleepless place with our son since he arrived almost two years ago, as a six year old. Losing control at night is very hard for him. The night terrors seem to get more intense depending on what’s going on in his precious heart and mind when times get difficult and memories cause pain. We lay with him to fall asleep and provide a bed in our room where he can sleep when awakes. He’ll sleep on the bed for a little bit, but He really seems to need body contact with one of us to to feel more secure. It’s hard on all of us, especially when we can’t sleep longer over the summer, but we’re willing to give him what he needs to help him feel safe and secure. We can’t see much of an end in sight now, but are praying that in time as he heals, sleep won’t be so terrifying. I’m so glad I found your blog today!

  2. We helped our little guy with sleep issues (recurrent night terrors during the night, every night and massive tantrums being left in a crib) by moving him to a big boy bed in our room (next to our bed) and laying down with him until he falls asleep. When he wakes during the night, I am right there to put a comforting hand on him. After about 3 months the night terrors finally stopped, and now he is mostly sleeping through the night (8 months) though he will still have restless nights and briefly wake, but hearing my voice and feeling my touch will put him back to sleep. Now getting him to sleep in a little bit is a WHOLE nuther story. 🙂

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