The impact of sleep-deprivation on children’s moods and behaviours
By Clare Parkin
Mable Therapy Child and Adolescent Counsellor and Family Therapist
Sleep, what do we actually know about it? Have you ever considered how you feel when you haven’t slept very well? Does it affect your attention span? Are you more irritable? I would imagine the answer to these questions is YES!! Well, children are no different and unfortunately, we seem to have an epidemic of sleep-deprived children.
During my career as a children’s therapist with CAMHS, I recognised many, many times the impact of sleep-deprivation and how this affected a child’s mood and behaviour. This realisation led me to seek a better understanding of the issue, and so I enrolled on The Sleep Charity’s, Sleep Practitioner course. Since receiving this training, I’m happy to say that I’ve gone on to help hundreds of individuals and families in getting a good night’s sleep.
I also find myself helping teachers, who are increasingly having to step in and speak to parents about their child’s sleep routine. These teachers recognise the impact that lack of sleep is having on the child’s school life, from both an academic and mental health perspective. This can feel like another task on a never-ending list, but if we can support parents in getting it right, the rewards will be worth it. So here’s everything you need to know, to support the parents of your students.
The Impact of Sleep-Deprivation
Did you know that a child who is sleep-deprived will display almost identical traits as a child with ADHD? This little known fact was explained to me by an ADHD nurse who works in the same geographic area as me. This explained so much, as most of the children I counselled in schools were referred to me for issues with their behaviour. Indeed, within some of the schools that I worked in, children were sent to isolation booths as a sanction for their poor behaviour. However, when I gained a better understanding from the child that they were up all evening on computer games or social media, I decided to address this problem.
Clearly parents and children need more education in sleep and the effect it has when they don’t get enough Zzz’s. Realising this led me to begin my quest in helping children and young people understand sleep hygiene. Changing a behaviour pattern is always going to be tricky, I mean which young person or indeed parent has the desire or energy to make these types of changes? It’s a balancing act between recognising the effects of poor sleep versus putting the effort in and maybe having tricky bedtimes for a few weeks.
Top Tips for Better Sleep
So what is a good sleep routine and how do you go about implementing it? Well, any bedtime routine is a good routine; just having a routine itself is so important when thinking about mental health. When I’m working with parents, here are the top tips I offer, to help their child get a better night’s sleep.
1. Create a Calm Sleeping Environment
The sleep routine, which I help with, starts by looking at the environment where sleep is going to take place; the bedroom! Parents often love to show me their child’s bedroom, from the hightech tv on their wall to the beautiful, elaborate mural adorning their children’s walls. What parents might want to consider is, how does this look to my young child when it gets dark? Do the shadows resemble scary monsters? Does the dressing gown on the back of the bedroom door morph into a terrifying zombie? What I ask all parents to do at the beginning of a session, is to go into their children’s bedroom at dusk, lay on their children’s bed and consider what It might feel like to be their child’s age. If it might feel scary to an adult, it most definitely will to a child.
2. Clear the Clutter
The next step to consider is how calm is the child’s bedroom? In no way am I the ‘neat house police’, but it’s important to look at the tidiness of their bedroom. I totally get that children play in their bedrooms as space is always at a premium, but if their bedroom is really untidy, the child will struggle to relax, “a tidy house is a tidy mind” and all that. However, I also understand that making time to constantly tidy a child’s bedroom can be a challenge too. Without this turning into a house cleaning hack, the easiest way to address this is for the parent to invest in a plastic box, just gather the stray toys and books then dump them in the box. Go for ease, this is about getting your child to sleep after all.
3. Dim the Lights and Scrap the Screens
I always ask parents to consider how much light enters a child’s bedroom. Does this child like a night light? What about the fairy lights that are draped over a child’s headboard? Unfortunately, any sort of light is sleep’s nemesis; here’s the science bit. We all (including adults) need to have darkness, to get to sleep. This is because when it becomes dark, our brains produce a hormone called Melatonin; we need Melatonin to get to sleep. If our environment is brightly lit or indeed lit up at all, it simply stops the Melatonin hormone from producing.
I often ask parents and teachers if they understand the reason why it’s not a good idea to use any kind of screen prior to sleep. The answer often varies from something to do with a blue light to an overactive mind. The truth is, it’s all about Melatonin production. It is simple, any kind of light stops Melatonin from producing, making it difficult to get off to sleep. It takes around an hour for your brain to start to produce the hormone, which is why it is suggested to stop any form of technology an hour before sleep.
If you have a student who has challenging behaviour, then it’s important to support the parent by suggesting a sleep routine, as more often than not, sleep deprivation will be the issue. I hope this blog has provided you with a brief insight to the importance of sleep and should you decide to book a session with Mable, I’d be happy to go through a sleep routine with your student or parent. It’s important to tailor a routine to an individual’s needs, as we are all unique. Should you wish to access this service, I am more than happy to offer you all kinds of practical help, support and advice to tackle these issues together.
I have received many emails, thanking me for the support that I have offered over the years, here is one of the most recent:
Hi, I just wanted to say thank you !! We’ve held consistent with our routine and it’s been amazing !! I now can’t think of last night when she got up. She’s currently sleeping and blissful. Still emotional about things but clearer to express why and full feelings. Thank you again.