The Oak Life Journal
Jul | Aug 2021
"Trouble at Bedtime"
(Ann Houck is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience working with at-risk children in the foster care system and in orphanages. In this segment, Ann answers your questions regarding child behavior and therapeutic care. Her approach uses Trust-Based Relational Intervention, a framework for parenting children of trauma, developed at Texas Christian University.)
By Ann Houck
Great question and, as always, the answer is probably not simple. Or, maybe it is! First, let’s ask ourselves, how are we feeling right now? Am I feeling anxious? Am I hungry, lonely, angry and/or tired? Am I feeling a sense of calm that will allow me to be fully present to the needs of this child? If I am not calm, it will likely further upset this child. And, if I am not calm, am I able to calm myself?
Next, ask yourself what the child’s behavior is “saying.” Remembering that all behavior is a form of communication, what is this child saying? What does she need? Maybe there is something from her past that causes her upset at bed time. Did bad things happen to her when she was being put to bed? Is her past trauma being triggered? Often, events of the moment make us remember something negative that happened in the past. For example, children are often physically or sexually abused at bed time. Although this is no longer happening, there may be a felt memory of a past event causing the child distress.
So, how do I figure out what this child needs in this moment? Trying out playful ideas often works with kids. You could ask silly questions: “Do you need a jellyfish right now? No, well then, maybe a purple cow? No, maybe a hug?” Kids will usually give you an indication that you are on the right track. When we are zeroing in on what she needs, she will become more calm. So, make “guesses” that can be answered “yes” or “no.” You can also ask: “I wonder if you can tell me how you are feeling right now. What would help you to feel more calm?” Remember to keep it playful. You are, after all, playing the game of Guess the Need.
Then, you get to provide what the child needs. A hug may take care of things. Maybe being wrapped (swaddled) in a blanket is what she wants. Or maybe, picturing something in words, like: “You need an elephant ride right now? Well, I don’t have an elephant at the moment, but we can pretend. Let’s picture a wonderful, friendly elephant. . .” Then, take it from there.
Finally, stay with her. Don’t give up. You are engaged in discovering something very important to this child. You are engaged in the process of finding out what sets her off at bed time and what she needs to calm herself to allay her fears. Recognizing what the child needs and meeting that need will make a huge impact on her future behavior and her ability to trust. Give it a go; you have nothing to lose.