Temper Tantrums, Morning Wars, Homework Hassles:
What Does Sleep Have to Do with Misbehavior?
"The difference between a child who is well rested and one who is not is a smile on his face — and on yours."
— Joe, father of two
The trouble with a child who is missing sleep is that her behavior is confusing. It's hard to believe that the real culprit behind her temper tantrum is lack of sleep when bedtime is one of your biggest battles or she loses it simply because you dropped her water bottle. And when she can't even dress herself, even though she did it yesterday, it feels more like a plot against you than an issue of fatigue. How can a child who is supposedly so tired, somehow garner the energy to veer off her path just far enough to bop her brother in the head, and jump on her bed laughing hysterically when you try to get her down for the night?
But if your child is misbehaving, it's very likely that he or she is crying for sleep. Sleep deprived children may include babies who are sleeping less than fourteen hours in a twenty four hour period; toddlers sleeping less than thirteen hours, preschoolers less than twelve hours, school-age children less than ten hours, or adolescents sleeping less than 9.25 hours a night. And until your child gets more sleep, no punishment, no discipline strategy will stop the challenging behaviors. Sound sleep is an essential key to good behavior. The problem is that children rarely tell you that they are tired. Instead they get wired, which escalates into a frenzy of energy. It's as though their body is out of control — and it is.
Suspecting that your child might be tired, you may have even tried to put him to bed at a reasonable hour, but it's as though he fights sleep. If he's an infant, just as you think he is about to drop off, he jerks awake thrashing and shrieking. And if he is older, no matter what you do, he still complains that he can't fall asleep, wakes frequently in the night, and all too often awakens early. Since your efforts are unrewarded, it's easy to assume that he does not need much sleep. The misbehavior and whining continue, and the connection to lack of sleep remains a mystery. That's what happened in Samantha's family.
On Saturday, eight-year-old Samantha was a delight. She accepted the news that her favorite cereal was gone with a mere sigh of disappointment. Over breakfast, she chatted cheerfully with her parents and even allowed her brother to join the conversation. When the baby reached for her toast, she offered him a bite instead of slapping his hand. He squealed with pleasure. Without complaining, she cleaned her room, and didn't lag behind on a trip to the shopping center. Her parents grinned, proud of their skill and glorying in their daughter's energy and enthusiasm for life. But Sunday was a different story.
On Sunday, Samantha wouldn't get out of bed, despite the planned outing with her grandparents. She shrieked in protest when her mother announced it was too cold to wear shorts, and shoved her brother away when he came to investigate the problem. The baby, hearing the high-pitched screams, sat saucer-eyed in fear. Unfortunately, it was also a bad hair day, an occurrence that overwhelmed Samantha and dropped her to her knees, tears spurting from her eyes. No matter what her parents did to remedy the situation, they couldn't get it right. She reeled in their arms, and then bolted from the room. Same child, same parents, same week — why such a difference in mood and behavior?
On Friday night, Samantha had enjoyed ten hours of sound slumber. She had been so pleasant on Saturday that her parents rewarded her by letting her stay up late to watch a movie. But on Sunday morning, plans precluded her sleeping in, leaving Samantha short on sleep. The tantrum got her parents attention, but not the association with lack of sleep.
SOMETIMES IT'S EASIER TO RECOGNIZE SLEEP DEPRIVATION IN YOURSELF.
I first met Samantha's mother, Sara, when she attended one of the weekly classes I teach for parents in St. Paul, Minnesota. Every week, for eight weeks, sixteen parents and their children arrive at the center. From the beginning, some bounce into the room ready to visit with friends, and learn new, effective strategies for working together. Others initially slip quietly through the door, weary. They wonder if there really is information that can help them, or if they are the only one facing the issues that trouble them. Almost always I am rewarded weeks later, as they, too, arrive smiling, with a proud stride to their step. I never grow tired of welcoming them, and am always eager to understand the issues they face.
When I'm not teaching in St. Paul, I lead large workshops all over North America, as well as offering private consultations for families. I'm also write. My previous books have included Raising Your Spirited Child; Raising Your Spirited Child Workbook; and Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles. Whether I am writing, working one on one with a family, leading a small discussion group, or speaking to a thousand parents and professionals, I am always deeply grateful that this is my work.
Initially when I brought up the topic of sleep in class, Sara was skeptical. What could sleep — or
lack of it — possibly have to do with the fact that Samantha was constantly overreacting to the simplest requests? Or that her four-year-old became "mother deaf," every afternoon at five. Especially since the mere word "bedtime" could send both of them to the moon. So, I asked her to take note of her own feelings when she was short on sleep. The next week she had a story to tell.
"The baby had an ear infection," she explained. "I didn't recognize it for several days because he wasn't running a temperature. He wasn't sleeping. I was up at least four times a night, and even when he did sleep, I was lying there, waiting for him to wake up again. So, when the alarm went off, I snuggled deeper under the covers, breathing slowly, my eyes closed. Just a minute, I thought. Just give me a minute. But there was no time for rest. I threw back the covers and dragged myself to the closet. I stood there, stumped. I couldn't make a decision. A dull headache thudded in the back of my head. Frustrated, I turned to leave and stubbed my toe. Searing pain shot through my entire leg. I couldn't believe how much it hurt. Now limping, I headed in slow motion to the kitchen, hoping that eating something would ease the weight in my limbs and the dryness in my mouth. Before I got there, my husband asked me to pick up the newspaper at the front door. I snapped at him. His simple request was overwhelming to me. Entering the kitchen, I opened up the bread drawer — no, I thought, toast would be too dry. I stood there, unable to figure out what I wanted. 'Aren't you eating anything?' my husband asked. I couldn't answer him. Instead I burst into tears."
She paused, her voice dropping, "Until that day, I never realized my kids must be feeling the same way."