It’s 3:27 pm. Your eight year old just got home from school. You ask her how her day was, and she bursts into tears. You’re mystified, because she’s never freaked out about little things before. Nothing major in her life has changed over the past few months, so what gives?
Sound familiar? If your child is over-emotional and overreacting to stress, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s starting teenage angst four years early. It could be a much simpler problem: poor sleep.
Babies who have sleep problems usually continue to have sleep challenges when they’re older. So if your child struggled to sleep well as a baby, and you never really resolved the problem, she might not have outgrown it like you thought -- she could just be reacting to sleep deprivation in different ways. But even if she used to sleep well, sleep struggles can start at any age -- and elementary school is a common time for new sleep problems to emerge. As her relationships with friends and her schoolwork both get more complex and stressful, she’s more likely to lie awake with anxiety. Plus, as kids get older, parents often get less involved in bedtime. If you’re spending your evenings making sure her younger sibling falls asleep and trusting her to quit reading at a reasonable hour, she might be staying up way too late with Captain Underpants. And while her love for reading is great for academic growth, her late nights with George and Harold could be wreaking havoc on her sleep.
What’s more, if sleep deprivation is causing her behavior to become more defiant, she’ll probably start resisting your attempts to enforce an early bedtime, too. This can get her caught in a loop of bad behavior and bad sleep, with both reinforcing each other. Breaking out of the cycle is challenging - but it all starts with recognizing the problem.
What behaviors are most impacted by sleep?
So how do you know if your child’s behavior problems are actually a sleep problem? The best way to be certain is to evaluate her sleep, but her behavior can give you some clues. Here are some of the most common behavior challenges that are associated with poor sleep.
Have her teachers suggested an evaluation for ADHD? Before you break out the ADHD diagnosis, try a sleep evaluation. There’s pretty strong evidence that hyperactivity is associated with poor sleep, and some researchers have found that treating the sleep problem can solve ADHD too. The reasons aren’t fully understood, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, “children tend to overcompensate and speed up when they’re tired” -- unlike adults, who tend to become more slow and sluggish when they’re sleepy. The result could be a false diagnosis of ADHD in a child whose real problems are rooted in sleep.
Is your child’s hyperactivity connected to sleep? One clue is if you notice a shift in her energy and activity level from how she normally acts. Another big clue is if the hyperactivity increases at bedtime: that’s a symptom of overtiredness, caused by your child’s adrenaline rising to compensate for exhaustion.
The jury isn’t out on this one: children with defiant behavior, including diagnosed oppositional disorders, get less sleep. What’s not certain is which causes which; you don’t need to be a researcher to know that defiant behavior, especially at bedtime, will lead to worse sleep. The connection is especially noticeable in preschoolers, although there’s a correlation for school-aged children too.
How can you know if your child’s defiance is triggered by poor sleep? Again, a change in behavior could be a sign: if she’s suddenly much more oppositional than she has been in the past, there’s probably something triggering it. However, more serious problems, such as oppositional defiant disorder, also can start in preschool or early elementary age, so you can’t assume it isn’t something more serious. The biggest clue to look for is other signs of sleep deprivation, such as having trouble waking up on time, sleeping in on the weekends, or unexpected napping during the day.
What qualifies as “over-emotional” for a school-aged child? It’s normal for kids to get emotional about things that an adult would consider no big deal. And even though your eight-year-old isn’t tantruming over the color of her sippy cup like she did as a toddler, it’s not unusual for her to feel devastated over the loss of her favorite stuffed animal.
The key here is how she handles her emotions. Most school-aged kids are able to manage their disappointed feelings and even think through them logically. She might feel extremely sad or disappointed over something that seems small, but she’ll be able to process those feelings and work through them. A sleep-deprived child, on the other hand, might melt down emotionally or even throw a toddler-style tantrum. She might also get much more upset than she ordinarily would over small problems. Finally, she might get very upset without being able to explain why. If she bursts into tears and doesn’t know why she’s crying, exhaustion is one of the most likely culprits.
Finally, your child’s cognitive function, especially her ability to learn new skills, can be significantly impaired by poor sleep. However, this is more subtle than the other problems, and many children whose cognitive abilities are affected are never diagnosed with sleep problems. You might not notice until her academic performance starts to slide - and the older she gets, the more devastating the academic consequences could be. Some children may even be incorrectly diagnosed with learning disorders that are actually a byproduct of lack of sleep.
The good news, though, is that even one night of good sleep can noticeably improve her cognitive ability. That’s why it’s so important to make sure kids sleep well before important tests - just one solid night of sleep can raise test results, even for a child who doesn’t have any recognized sleep problems.
What can you do about bad behavior?
If you strongly suspect that your child’s behavior is being impacted by her sleep, now what? You may be desperate to improve the behavior, but the truth is, your usual discipline methods are probably not going to help. Your child isn’t deliberately defying you; she’s doing the best she can with the energy she has. The physiological effects of poor sleep are making it hard for her to manage her behavior and emotions, and until she gets enough rest, she’s going to struggle with behavior.
So the first step is to evaluate whether she’s getting enough sleep, and then take action to improve her sleep. Start with simple steps like cutting screentime in the afternoon, optimizing her room for better sleep, making her weekend schedule consistent with her weekday one, and staying involved in her bedtime routine to make sure she’s really going to sleep on time. Then, try to minimize the stresses in her life and help her manage her behavior in the short term. As her sleep improves, her behavior should get better on its own.