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When Sleep Escapes You

How I Am Teaching My 10 Year Old Daughter To Get To Sleep

My 10-year-old daughter has had trouble sleeping on and off for a few years, and the changes to our family routine brought about by lockdown are not helping. Yes, she's guilty, like most kids her age, of watching TV in the hours before bed, of using her iPad in the evening, and of high intensity dance and gymnastic routines in the living room that would make the choreographer of Cirque Du Soleil's toes curl.

She goes to bed at a reasonable time but then finds herself wide awake still as midnight approaches. The frustration and tension builds within her, and the sound of us coming up to bed and the thought of her being the last one awake in the house sends her into a total panic.

This pattern has been going on for several years, intermittently. It happens in cycles, whereby the problem lasts a month and then she is fine for a while, then for no specific reason her sleep pattern goes and the panic cycle starts again.

I am a recovering insomniac myself, so I understand the despair. I got to the point where I could only eventually fall asleep if I had the radio on - not great for anyone sharing a bed - and so I had to invest in speaker pillows (really poor quality pillows that are bad for your neck, but that have a speaker hidden amongst the flimsy stuffing). I bought about half a dozen of these, petrified by the idea that the company might one day stop making them and I would therefore never be able to sleep again.

Eventually though, realising how unhealthy my behaviour was becoming, I undertook some deep research and devised a technique that helped me conquer my sleep problems once and for all. When I share my sleep advice with other insomniacs they often get angry, and I understand why this happens too. The advice is so simple that it threatens the validity of the problem in the first place. It leaves you feeling a little bit stupid, as if you have had this serious problem that you could have solved all along - the ego doesn't like this and so it fights like crazy. But, as is the case with many things in life, sometimes our problems and issues become defining aspects of our life, and although we hate to admit it, occasionally we just don't want to give it up, even if it is for our best interests. Sometimes our problems give us excuses and reasons for our failures, sometimes they get us attention, sometimes they give us something to moan about or just to talk about.

Regardless of this, the advice is unashamedly simple, although that doesn't mean it's easy. Like anything you want to master, you have to practice consistently and build up a good habit, so that when you need to use the skill you are match fit.

So my challenge was to distill the technique down into simple enough steps that a 7-year-old child could understand (it was three years ago that her troubles started). Here was how I attempted to communicate this to her:

  • 1. You can't chase sleep. Sleep happens TO you when you are in the optimal state of relaxation.

  • Relaxation only really happens when we totally accept everything that is going on inside of us.

  • Thoughts are just thoughts, regardless of whether they are angry thoughts, anxious thoughts, or even happy thoughts. We have to allow them to come and go without judgement, and without giving them attention.

  • Similarly, feelings are just feelings and sensations are just sensations. We have to allow them to be there and to just experience them, without judgement, and without feeding them.

  • Don't push the thoughts, feelings or sensations away - in fact, go the opposite way - welcome them in. Embracing them and accepting them makes them lose their energy and power. Ordinarily they feed off our attention and energy, usually through our negative attention of wanting them to go away or using will power to override them. Diffuse them by embracing them. This really works.

  • Focus on your breathing. It's constant and unique with every breath. Watch it without judging it. Feel it. Every time you catch yourself lost in thoughts, feelings or sensations, return your attention to your breath. Repeat this over and over and over and over again.

  • This isn't a one time fix it. You need to get better and better at practising these techniques, and the only way to do that is to be consistent. The first few nights you might still not get the sleep you desire, you might have to return your focus to your breathing a thousand times but you will have alerted your mind that you are 'in training', and slowly but surely you will reduce this down to just a handful of times, and before you know it you will wake up in the morning and wonder what happened the night before.

Okay, this is a simplified version of everything, but it's the basics and it's enough to get you started. Too much at once can have the adverse effect and leave you over-thinking when it comes to bedtime, which is not what we want.

When my 10-year-old was still anxious at 11pm last night I scribbled 8 words on a piece of paper and put it on her bedside. I've been working with her on this for a few years now, but she gets lazy with her practice of it when she is sleeping okay, and then forgets it by the time she needs it. It was a kind of mantra that I wanted her to focus on, in relation to her thoughts, if she felt anxious and we were in bed. It simply read:

Accept it. Don't judge it. Welcome it in.

This morning when she woke up, I asked her what happened and she said, "I kind of said that saying over and over and when the scary thoughts came in I accepted them, didn't judge them and welcomed them in like a friend and then I woke up this morning, so I guess they kind of work."

Kids never give you proper credit!

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