Bedtime Stress Response

16th May 2016
Bedtimes with aroha

Ever stood at the door of your child’s room at bedtime, ready to leave, thinking you’re all done for the evening when suddenly they make a request, ask a question, sound unhappy?

The Intention

I’ve always made it a priority for the children to go to sleep knowing they’re loved and cared for rather than feeling alone or sad. It’s important to me that my children associate their beds and bedtime with happiness. I’ve spent most nights of this last 12 years of parenthood working with the children to create positive bedtime rituals such that both they and I feel connected and strong in our relationship whenever I leave them to their sleep.

These rituals have included cuddles, songs, stories, kissing arms, massaging feet, drawing on backs, back and forth word and gesture choreography that we’ve built up together over time. When it’s gotten out of hand with too much being asked of me I’ve limited the final words to “what’s the last thing you’d like to say?” which quickly extended to “three things” but did stop there.

The Reality

For the most part this has been great. We knew what to expect and mostly stuck within those boundaries – working together as a team to create a beautiful end to the day. However there have been times when requests for something more to eat or drink or a tricky question such as “How did all the houses get here?” or even more eye raising “Where did all the people come from?” have felt like an insurmountable problem; like an enormous, overwhelming obstacle rising up between me and my chance to go to bed myself! I still get this now at times, even though I figured the panic over how much sleep I am going to get tonight has long since passed as my children have grown up.

I felt this just last night. I was holding youngest’s hand as she drifted off to sleep – so relaxing, I love doing this – when middle child came in and announced she was still hungry and could she have something to eat. My mind went blank (I was very interested to note) as the learned stress response kicked in – auto pilot. I could have answered, relaxed and happy, “sure thing, there’s plenty of fruit, I’ll see you soon to say goodnight” but no, I went into panic mode. I garbled something about “not able to answer, don’t ask me” and then, after a few breathes I called out to her retreating back “yes, ok, go for it” – not quite calmly, but I did manage to spit out that more helpful response.

The Reflection

So what’s going on for me that a simple request can hamstring me so?

I understand the neurology of it. When we are triggered into stress response our brains shut down the “unnecessary” rational part of our brain, instead diverting energy to the fight, flight or freeze parts of the brain – our primitive survival mechanisms that served us so well for thousands of years when living out in the elements amongst many dangerous predators. Also, I get that this panic response was repeated many times when I was super tired for all those years and was seriously feeling in danger due to exhaustion making driving something of a concern. However it’s not helpful anymore (nor indeed was it ever possibly), it’s not serving me to get angry or go blank when my children ask me to stay a few moments more or to rub the other foot before leaving. I’m no longer at a point where the urge to run away from this parenting business is a regular occurrence. It’s also not helpful for me to blame the children for their “unreasonable requests”, which is often how it seems in the moment, until later when my rational brain sees it more how it actually is – a child has a need to be met.

Bedtime

Bedtime – meeting needs, minimising the stress response

The New Intention

Hmmm. So what’s needed here is for me to be mindful of my breath, keep my love for my children at the forefront of my thoughts and feelings, and stay strong in my trust that these days I will get enough sleep most nights. Connecting with the breath helps to calm my nervous system and soothe the stress response. I’ll need to work with the children to get clear on new boundaries and re-learn helpful responses; and practice these each evening until they are well embedded. When I notice the stress response I can take steps to calm it as soon as possible and clean up any messes I may have made with the children while in that state. And most of all, I will need to be kind to myself, ensuring forgiveness and love are paramount throughout this process.

Thanks girls for providing yet another opportunity for me to learn and grow!

Days Gone By…

Thinking back, I could have used this reflection to support myself, my girls and our precious rituals when the stress response was a regular occurrence. Awareness that it was happening, understanding that the processes underpinning the fight, flight or freeze response were my brain’s attempt to keep me safe (this is its major objective). Acknowledging that I had reason to feel concerned for how much sleep I was going to get, so boundaries were indeed important and that also “this too shall pass”. Recognising my response as my response rather than the children’s fault would have been very helpful. The mindfulness, the breath, the love and working together on boundaries and practice responses, and finally kindness and forgiveness for myself would all still have been relevant.

With any luck this will resonate with others out there and offer some ideas to make bedtimes the special, connecting and relationship nourishing opportunities that they can be.

Endnote

What bedtime ritual ideas can you create together? You know each other and your bedroom layouts and lifestyle best. Best not to do this when you’re a bit frazzled or in a hurry. Have a good cuddle and chat about it when you’re calm and enjoying each other.

Ask your friends, and your friends’ children, and wider whanau about what they do for bedtime rituals.

Else a couple of other ideas off the internet:

Bedtime Gorilla Help your Children Ease into a Peaceful Sleep

Bedtime music such as Indigo Dreams – soothing music (for you and for them)

Po marie x

 

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