Children from traumatic backgrounds often deal with a lot of chronic fear—fear of the unknown, fear of not having enough, fear of the unfamiliar, and on and on. Their prior unpredictable and chaotic living situations often create a hypervigilance that does not allow these children to truly relax their minds and bodies. I recall a 16-year-old girl I worked with in a long-term residential setting. On her first day at the facility, she walked into our large kitchen and methodically opened every cupboard door, and then the large walk-in refrigerator, meticulously inspecting the contents therein. Her behavior told us that she came from a background where there was likely not enough food. Another story was recounted to me by an adoptive mom who shared that her young son recoiled in fear when he would hear a sudden, loud noise.
Chronic fear in adopted and foster children can take numerous forms. It can be fear of sudden or loud noises and voices, fear of being alone in a room and fear of unfamiliar places. You may recall that I previously wrote that for the previously-traumatized child, control of their environment is their number one priority in order to feel safe. When they feel their immediate environment is not in their control, then a “meltdown” may be imminent.
In this series of blogs, I want to share how we can help our children who struggle from chronic fear and anxiety. Please keep in mind that these are not instant solutions—helping your child to manage his or her fears is a process that can take months, and sometimes years. In this article, I want to talk about BEDTIME.
For many children who have PTSD, bedtime can be challenging for both them and their parents. Bedtime can either be “meltdown time” or “mellow-out” time! There are certain things we can try to ensure it is the latter of the two. Establishing a set bedtime routine is the strongest preventative medicine there is to offset bedtime anxiety. In the beginning, when your child is first with you this may mean you have to start with a transition plan, meaning your child may need to start off sleeping in your room for a period of time, possibly on a cot or mat on the floor. You can get creative with this also—I love the example that Lisa Qualls shares about her young son in the book she co-authored with Dr. Karyn Purvis, The Connected Parent. Qualls shares that one of her younger adopted sons always felt most comfortable sleeping in a small, confined space. Qualls and her husband set up a sleeping bag inside of a small child’s tent in his room. Their son loved this arrangement and slept soundly in his tent, which included his favorite stuffed animals and his favorite blanket.
Prior to lights out, activities such as singing, reading stories, playing a quiet game, warm baths and giving your child a back rub are all ways to help him or her relax and settle into the night. This is a routine that must stay constant if at all possible (realizing that there may be some late nights due to unforeseen circumstances), and must never be rushed. Let your child pick the songs or stories he or she wants. It is common for most small children to request the same stories or songs over and over again each night, but for the child who has been through trauma, this repeated routine can also provide the predictability they need in order to feel safe. Another bedtime routine can be taking deep, steady breaths together with your child as you lie on the bed beside him or her. You can make this a fun activity by counting as you do it.
Next week I will address “Food Fears.” Thanks for tuning in!