Sunday 25 February 2018

David Coleman: My six-year-old girl is having trouble sleeping

I am concerned about my six-year-old girl, the third of my four children.

My husband has recently begun a job working away from home. He is home every weekend and my daughter is very close to him.

I am at home all week and work at weekends. Daddy rings every night and spends good quality time with her when he is home.

We have visited where he works and lives midweek.

At the beginning she seemed to take the change very well, but in the last few weeks she is finding it difficult to go to sleep at night.

It is taking her at least one or two hours to go to sleep. There are usually no tears involved but she has a look of worry on her face.

My concern is that she does not seem to have the ability/vocabulary to voice how she feels or what her worries are.

I don't know how to "reach" her.

I need some advice on how I can help her to feel secure.

I can imagine that things are very stressful in your family. This is a huge adjustment for everyone. Even though the children's physical home hasn't changed it must feel, to everyone, a bit like your emotional and psychological home has changed immeasurably.

You and your husband have become more like a tag-team; as he comes in to parent you go out to work and vice-versa. Just as your children settle into one style of parenting, things shift and they have to adapt to the way the other parent does things.

It is akin to the experience that children have when their parents split up and they have to get used to living with each parent separately.

Typically, when parents can share the responsibility for raising their children, children get a balance of how each parent likes to do things. However, with your husband absent for five days in a row, the children only get your influence for those five days.

Then, at the weekend, your husband is in charge. He no doubt has his own take on things and his own approach to dealing with the children.

Your six-year-old may also be really missing her dad during the week and may feel that home is not the secure, safe place that it always was because he is not there.

It may be that your daughter is showing, in her disrupted sleeping pattern, how unsettled and how insecure she feels with all the to-ing and fro-ing that is happening in your home.

Sleeping and toileting are two of the areas where we often see changes in children's habits when they are upset and stressed. With sleep particularly, it is very hard to fall asleep when you don't feel fully safe, secure and comfortable.

Naturally, six year olds may struggle to express these quite complicated feelings. Their emotional vocabulary is still quite limited and their ability to really understand and process the range of feelings they may have is also somewhat restricted.

On top of that, she and the other children may be reluctant to bring up the distresses they may feel about missing their dad, or having to get used to the on-again, off-again parenting. She, and they, probably see that you (and their dad) are also struggling to adapt to the changes.

They probably are attuned to your feelings and so can pick up the stresses you feel with being solely responsible during the week and your own sadness or upset at missing your husband while he works away.

In these circumstances children will often hold back on verbalising their feelings for fear of further upsetting their parents.

In time, your daughter will adapt to the new rhythm and routine of the weeks. Once she can trust that things will remain stable in their current set-up she will be able to relax more and hopefully her sense of security will return.

In the interim, however, I think it will benefit everyone to take some time each weekend to have a short family meeting, with all the children.

This creates a forum where you, explicitly, allow and encourage them to talk about how the changes in the family set-up are affecting them.

Because you and your husband bring up the subject it gives all the children permission to talk about what the changes mean for them, including saying out loud what might be worrying them.

Your six-year-old may really appreciate knowing that her brothers and sisters are also finding things hard.

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