Sunday 26 January 2020

Ask the expert: What can I do about my four-year-old son’s early waking?

Illustration: Maisie McNeice.
Illustration: Maisie McNeice.
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from the clinical psychologist and parening expert on how to deal with a four-year-old who wakes early in the morning and on whether parents of a 17-year-old girl have a right to know she is sexually active.

Question: Our four-year-old son wakes between 5am and 6am every morning. We have a good bedtime routine: he typically has eaten and gets no more drinks from 5.30pm, bedtime begins around 6.30pm, and he is usually asleep by 7pm. We have a Gro-Clock in his room set to 6.30am and he does occupy himself quietly until the sun comes back. We are concerned because he seems exhausted a lot of the time. He gets lots of colds and has no emotional resilience to deal with disappointment and upset, and has toddler-style outbursts. Any suggestions?

David replies: Perhaps start by considering other factors than just his sleeping as the cause(s) of the difficulties you have identified.

For example, bring him to your GP or think about something like vitamin supplements with regards to his robustness to deal with colds and such like. Maybe it is more than tiredness that is affecting his resistance.

Even his tantrums may be just down to being a four-year-old rather than especially due to exhaustion.

There are many things about your son's sleeping that are so positive too. The first is that you do seem to have a good bedtime routine that prepares your son to go to bed and fall asleep.

Moreover, your routine seems successful because he does seem to fall asleep quickly and easily and then he stays asleep for between 10 and 11 hours straight, with no periods of night-time wakefulness.

You also seem to have successfully trained him to stay in his own bed (or room) until 6.30am, even though he has been awake for potentially an hour or more, meaning that you don't get woken yourselves, until a more reasonable hour.

Indeed the only issue seems to be that he may not get enough sleep because he wakes so early.

Young children his age do need about 11-12 hours of sleep per day. That doesn't all have to happen at once, though, and so an early afternoon nap may still help him to get that extra hour of sleep over a 24-hour period.

You may have tried to keep him awake later, in the hope that he might sleep on later too. But, if he has a 10-hour sleep cycle then he still gets the same amount of sleep, it is only the timing of when he gets that sleep that has changed.

Indeed, if it is the 5am time that is his trigger (rather than a 10-hour sleep cycle), then staying awake later could actually lead to less sleep overall.

The other thing to consider is what wakes him after the 10 hours? It could be that his bladder is full. If so, then there is little you can do about that other than making sure that a wee is the very last thing he does before he gets into bed.

Another possibility is that hunger might be waking him. If he is finished eating at 5.30pm, the evening before, then I'd imagine that he must be starving 12 hours later.

No doubt his body has carefully monitored his reserves of energy through the night and may, instinctively, be alerting him to the fact that he needs to replenish those reserves 12 hours later.

It might be worth your while experimenting with a snack, or some supper, just before he heads up to brush his teeth or start the bedtime routine at 6.30pm. That little bit of extra sustenance, delivered later in the evening, might allow him to sleep later without his natural hunger pangs wakening him.

Chances are that you'll still be woken up at 6.30am, but importantly, your son may have had an extra hour of sleep to give him the reserves to fight off infection and cope emotionally through the day.

Like I say, this will be an experiment. You may find that eating a bit later makes it harder for him to fall asleep, either due to digestion or the extra energy boost of the food. So, again, any benefit of sleeping later is negated by it taking longer for him to fall asleep.

If changing his eating habits don't make the difference, and he doesn't nap in the day, then your only real option may be to create quiet times where he at least rests, even if he doesn't sleep. Maximising his down time, or quiet time, may build up those reserves needed to cope better through the day.

Our 16-year-old son is having sex with his girlfriend and her parents don't know. Should we tell them?

Question: Our son of 16 is sexually active with his 17-year-old girlfriend. While we know about their activity, her parents are not aware of it. We feel a responsibility to make sure that her parents, or at least her mother, are aware so that we can all look out for the two of them. When we suggested that we speak with his girlfriend's mother he became really angry. He is afraid he'll lose his girlfriend if we 'blow the whistle'. But don't her parents have a right to know? If it was my daughter at risk of getting pregnant, I'd want to know!

David replies: A short answer to your question is, no, I don't think her parents have a right to know that their daughter is having sex. You could equally argue, for example, that their daughter has a right to her privacy.

A better question might be, is it good for her parents to know that she is having sex?

Of course the answer to the question is not straightforward. Answering it requires us to consider the competing needs, responsibilities and rights of everyone involved.

Rather than simply giving you an answer, which may not fit with your values, I'm going to give you a decision-making process. This is a process that can absolutely include your son, so that you can incorporate his views.

Since your son is so intimately involved in the outcome of your decision about whether to talk to his girlfriend's parents or not, it is also good for him too to share in the responsibility and to 'own' the final decision. The first step is to carefully define the issues and parties involved. List all the people affected by your decision and be clear about what it is you are deciding.

In your case, for example, is it the issue about the safety of teenagers having sex or the rights of all parents to be aware of their teenager's behaviour? Or is it about the right of teenagers to act independently and without reference to their parents?

The second step is to evaluate the rights, responsibilities and welfare of all affected parties. This is the key bit and usually the difficult one because ethical dilemmas by their nature often pit the rights of one person against the rights of another.

Your goal is to try to see things from everyone's point of view. This may be why your son's input might be critically important, as a voice for the rights of teenagers. But, does respecting his girlfriend's privacy promote her welfare if in fact she does need guidance and support to avoid unexpected pregnancy?

The third step is to generate as many alternative decisions as possible - the more the better.

Imagine scenarios where you do talk to her parents, or where you encourage the teenagers to talk to her parents, or your son to talk to her parents, or nobody talking to her parents, or you talking to her yourselves without talking to her parents.

Don't judge any possible alternative yet, just get as many as possible out on the table.

The fourth step is to carefully evaluate the likely outcome of each decision.

Remember what core issues you feel are relevant and how each issue will be affected by each decision. Remember the rights and responsibilities that you identified and how these will be impacted.

Here again, try to empathically put yourself in each of the key participant's place when you do this process.

Seeing the world through the eyes of another can be a very powerful tool.

The fifth step is to choose what, in your judgment, is the best decision. You need to inform all the relevant people and then implement your decision.

The last step is to take responsibility for the consequences of the decision. Not everyone is likely to be fully satisfied by the decision you eventually take.

This is the time to stand up as a parent and accept that even if we don't always get it right we do always care. So long as that care and concern is genuinely motivating our decisions then that will be good enough, for you and your son.

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