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10 Year old Can't Relax and Sleep - Meltdowns from Noise, Lights

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My 10-year-old is giving us absolute fits at bedtime. Not all nights but many. I try to be patient but there are times I just want to run screaming. He comes out of his room constantly, complaining that a light is too bright or it's too hot or the TV is too loud, etc. If we fix one thing, something else pops up. We've sent him to sleep in the dark cool basement, but then there are noises that bug him. One night he said he was hot, so we finally turned on the air, then he complained that air was too loud. I am not kidding. We have finally started letting him use ear plugs - this seems to help. But sometimes he still will complain about lights. He'll come out and even turn lights out on us. He says they shine under his door. ?? Hubby thinks he's trying to manipulate us, and sometimes I think that. But he really seems to want to go to sleep and gets frustrated. This whole things gets VERY VERY frustrating sometimes. Hubby gets angry and even though I try to stay calm, I often get angry as well. He just will NOT stay in his room when he has these issues.

I talked to his pediatrician. He suggested a fan to drown out all other noises. But white noise only bothers my son. It's like there's NOTHING that will work for him sometimes. Oh, it's so bad that even his fish tank that barely makes noise will annoy him if he's not wearing ear plugs. I've never seen anything like it. Do you have any suggestions? Now tonight, for some reason, he did ok. He got ear plugs in and hasn't come out once. But last night, my husband refused to put ear plugs in for him b/c he was busy and it was a very bad night. Do you have any ideas of what we could do without capitulating, to help him? Or what might this be about?

Also, I do have a 10-month-old so I realize we've had lots of changes. But my 10-yr-old has had sleep issues much longer than 10 months. Oh, and it's like he's tantruming/having meltdowns when he gets like that. He cries and gets very very frustrated so I don't think he does this intentionally.


I want to start by saying that when you help your son with this issue, you are not "capitulating." This is not a power struggle. He is not manipulating you. He needs your help.

It sounds to me like your son probably has some sensory issues, which make him super sensitive to light and sound. These will be worse when he is tense and anxious. So he needs your help to learn to manage this. 

Since he doesn't have a hard time every night, that means that some nights he can tolerate the stimuli because he is more relaxed. It is also possible that he may have other sensitivities, like food issues, that only occur sometimes and are keeping him awake. Or maybe on those nights when he has a hard time sleeping, he's been exposed to screens too late in the day, and his body hasn't made the melatonin he needs to fall asleep. Or, he may have some pent up feelings -- what I call a full emotional backpack -- that he needs your help to empty. Some days are just more stressful than others, so it's harder to fall asleep. And of course, there are those bigger stresses that you say he's been feeling. Those include a baby in the family and the beginning of his body and brain changing as he enters the preteen years.

The fact that he has a meltdown means that he has a lot of feelings stored up that he needs your help to let out. After he has a chance to cry deeply, those feelings evaporate. So I am betting that after he cries, he can fall asleep pretty easily, right? But until he cries, he feels tense and wound up, and anything sets him off and keeps him awake. Since he's very sensitive to sensory stimuli, naturally sound and light will bother him more acutely when he's already tense.

So the first thing for you and your husband to remember is that if you get tense, your son's tension will escalate and it will be even harder for him to relax and sleep. Try to see it from his point of view -- he's all wound up and can't relax but he's exhausted! -- and try to keep yourself calm. 

And, it's fine for him to have that meltdown. In fact, it's probably good for him to have a chance to show those tears and fears to a compassionate witness, so he can experience them and let them go. So if you can just stay very compassionate, he will hopefully feel safe enough to have the meltdown and show you all that stress. He will relax in general, be happier and more cooperative-- and he will start falling asleep more easily, not just the night he cries but every night.

Does this mean you can't give him earplugs? No, of course not. Certainly try the earplugs first. Do everything you can to help him block out stimuli. Sleeping with a little face mask -- the kind they give you on planes for overnight flights -- can be very helpful to block out light.

I highly recommend that you do some roughhousing with your son to get him laughing, earlier in the evening. Laughter changes the body chemistry -- it reduces stress hormones -- and relaxes the body. Of course, you can't do this too close to bedtime or it will wind him up, but after dinner and before a calming bath would work beautifully. I realize that it's harder to get a ten year old laughing than it is with a younger child, but experiment with physical games to see what works. You might try some of the games on this page: Playing with Your Child: Games for Connection and Emotional Intelligence .

Also experiment with other factors, like screen time and diet, that could be having an impact. It's entirely possible, though, that this is just a physical change brought on by approaching puberty, and he needs help to relax.

Remember that when he's tired and tossing and turning, every noise seems loud. You might experiment with him by trying different types of music if that helps him to relax. I especially recommend sleep audios for kids, because they teach relaxation skills like deep breathing that are essential life skills for sensitive people. (Here's an example: Sea Otter Cove: A Relaxation Story introducing deep breathing to decrease stress and anger while promoting peaceful sleep (Indigo Ocean Dreams) published by Stress Free Kids.  There are probably many such sleep audios on the internet; I just happen to have heard good things about the Stress-Free Kids products and like that they will give you recommendations and free trials so you can listen yourself before you buy.) I always recommend that the parent listen first to be sure that the audio is appropriate for that child. You know your child best and age is not always the the best predictor.

You might also try EFT, which is just tapping on the energy meridians to help the body let off stress. I've known many people who have used this technique successfully for insomnia. Here's a link to an article on this website about using EFT with children.

But if you try all these ideas and they don't help, it probably means that your son is wound up with feelings that he needs to feel and express -- with you as a  "witness" -- before he can relax. I would remain VERY compassionate: "Oh, Sweetie, I'm sorry it's so hard to fall asleep..." But don't move him to another room, or feel that your house needs to be in total darkness and radio silence. Just say "I'm sorry we need the lights on in the living room, Sweetie...I know that's hard for you..." and when he begins to cry, stay with him and love him through his meltdown. A few nights of him being able to express all that stress to you safely, and I'm betting the problem will vanish. Good luck!

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