When Frightening News Leads To Young Children's Sleepless Nights

What advice do you have for young kids having trouble falling asleep due to recent events?
News of recent tragedies, whether perpetrated by terrorists, human error or mother nature, seeps into our homes and impacts upon the peace of mind of young children. Fear and insecurity take root in their vulnerable psyches but the continuation of normal daytime routines generally keeps worrisome thoughts at bay. It is night time when children are more susceptible to the narrative of fear filling their minds. There is nothing to distract them from the disturbing images they have mentally recorded from news broadcasts or overheard others talking about. The night becomes a dreaded departure from the safety of the day since closing one's eyes opens the darkness of their fear.
Read on if you're among those experiencing the angst and aggravation of children's sleepless nights:
Review their questions and worries related to today's sad circumstances during day time hours, and enforce the policy that these discussions are out of bounds after dinner. Discuss the information they already possess without introducing new content that may open more mental doors of worry. Strive to close the doors open in their minds by stressing the precautions in place in their lives. Highlight the protectors (parents, teachers, police, firemen, etc.) and rules (seatbelts, fire drills, locked doors etc.) that make life safe and secure. Explain how the ongoing safety of life doesn't make news but exists every day.
Introduce a sleep hygiene routine that stresses the importance of "by myself" falling asleep after "parent settling" them in bed. Be mindful of the stories read as they may contain content that triggers associations to disturbing events. Illustrations are particularly critical to consider since they often have stunning visual impact that lingers long after story time is over. It is often preferable to minimize book reading in favor of "Mommy or Daddy stories" that ask the child to close their eyes and create their own pictures as parents tell a soothing story from their own childhood or a calming fantasy about the child's favorite subjects.
Prior to leaving the child's bedroom, and while they are sleepy yet not asleep, remind them of all the "big girl/boy" accomplishments they succeed at every day. Whether it be brushing their teeth, taking the school bus, or going to after school activities, emphasize the pride of independence. Reassure them of how letting themselves be carried away into a calming sleep is another one of these "big kid" steps. Give them a loving and lasting visual image to hold onto, such as cuddling with a favorite stuffed animal, and gently remind them to call up this sleepy picture if they briefly wake up in the middle of the night.
In the event that troubles with falling asleep still ensue, parents must show patience and calm in the face of their child's sleep worries. Return to the "sleep script" that highlights the safety of life and remind them of some of the "safe adventures" they have taken with family and friends. Be certain not to trigger too much mental stimulation as you want to preserve the child's sleepy state of mind.
Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting. Contact him at 610-238-4450 ordirector@parentcoachcards.com

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