Some time ago I was asked to assist a residential care home for children in because one of the children refused to go to bed at night. This was treated as ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and the child was offered rewards if he went to bed on time. I found this odd, firstly because this is common in children who have experienced a traumatic early childhood, and secondly because it was clear to me that the child wanted to be able to ‘go to bed’ like other children.
I decided to spend a night in the house with the residential workers so I could find out more and maybe help. That evening, I sat in the living room, watching the worker trying to coax the child to go to his room, and noticed a chattering sound… it was my teeth.
I was freezing!
I called out to the worker, and said “ I think the heating is broken, should we have a look at it?” to which the worker replied “Oh not at all, we always switch off the heating, it makes the kids cold so they want to go under their doona!”…hmm. I paused then said “How’s that working out for you?”
Fact is, that child abuse has profound effects on a survivor’s sleep regulation. There are varied reasons for this: the Fight/Flight response dysregulates the brain stem, that is responsible for sleep; Nighttime itself is a trigger for many who have suffered child abuse and neglect; The aloneness and silence of the night can cause us to face a very painful internal world; and the list goes on.
So what will turning off the heat achieve? It will achieve coldness, increased vulnerability to hypervigilance, warmth tells us we are safe and others are close, so being col will tell our brains we are alone and unsafe. In other words, the last thing we will want is to go to bed!
So we reversed it.
We made the house Toasty Warm. Also cosy, with rugs and nice things on the wall, we started making hot milos at night and reading bedtime stories. It didn’t make the child instantly got to bed and to sleep, but it did assure him of safety, warmth and closeness, and it meant that he was able to sleep easier, and if he couldn’t, that someone would be nearby, not castigating him for inappropriate behaviour, but letting him know he was safe, with a blame-free voice and a hot milo.
Healing is a long, long process.
Let’s be there for children the whole day, not just until bedtime.