Sleep deprivation can cause behavior problems in kids of divorce


Sleep Deprived


Few people realize that many children of divorce are not getting enough sleep. When you think about it, it does make sense. Children naturally do better in an environment that feels safe, has a schedule along with consistent routines.

Dad or mom moves out of the home and nothing is consistent any longer. Many children no longer feel safe and so sleep problems invade the home. Some divorcing moms will allow the child to come and sleep in her bed. She may be lonely, feel guilty and she can’t say no to the child. She also tells herself it’s just for a few nights.

The problem for the most part is those few nights turn into every night for months. What the mom doesn’t realize is she is feeding into the child’s insecurities by saying indirectly, “yes, sleep in my bed because there is something to be scared about.” The mom doesn’t get a good night’s sleep and she wakes grouchy the next morning. The child wakes with the same insecurities the next day as he had the night before.

Perhaps the child gets on a good schedule at mom’s house and then it’s time to go to dads. Dad has a different schedule. At dad’s there are different pajamas to get used to; different sounds, different smells and many other differences. Perhaps he lets the child stay up late and sleep later the next morning. Maybe he doesn’t live as far from the school as mom so he can let the kids sleep in later. Every other week the child’s sleep schedule changes.

We know from research that sleep deprivation can be a big part of the picture when it comes to lower school achievement. In the article, “Lack of sleep blights pupils’ education” Sean Coughlan confirms what I have experienced with kids of divorce for years. While this article is not about children of divorce, I believe we can still apply it to many of the children of divorce.

Years ago I had a child from a single parent home in my childcare program. He was one of those kids who got out of control very quickly. After just a few short weeks we began to realize this kid had sleep deprivation.

When he would take a nap, he was a changed kid. He became compliant, kind and in control. We got a special mat for him and any time his body started getting out of control we sent him to his mat. It didn’t matter if it was 7:00 in the morning, noon, 3:00 in the afternoon or 5:00 in the evening, this kid took a nap. He is not the only child of divorce that needed sleep that I’ve worked with down through the years.

How can you tell if a child is sleep deprived?

  • Listen to their conversations. If they talk about late night TV shows or the games they played in bed under the covers this is a big clue.
  • If they yawn a lot and seem lethargic they are probably tired and need a nap.
  • Some will have frenzied activity because they have passed the threshold of the need for sleep. They are too excited and their body is overcompensating.
  • Some children will have deep dark circles under their eyes. Pay attention that clue.
  • They can’t concentrate.
  • They are grouchy and don’t want other kids bothering them. By bothering them it might mean someone is looking at them.

Tips to pass to the parent

  • Try to work with the other parent if at all possible to keep the child on the same bedtime schedule.
  • Develop a bedtime that happens at the same time every night, even if the child says they are not tired.
  • Protect the child’s bedtime. This may mean you turn events and activities down in order to get your child to bed on time.
  • Develop a bedtime routine such as bath, read a book, say prayers, etc.
  • Turn off the TV and stop all electronic activities and hour before bedtime especially computer screens, phones and hand held games. “The light from the screen, held close to the face, is physically disruptive to the natural onset of sleep.” Sean Coughlan The light tells the brain not to sleep but to stay awake.
  • Turn off all lights in the child’s room. Screens and different colored lights can disrupt deep sleep.
  • If you play music for your child to go to sleep, the music should be turned off once the child is asleep because music will not allow the brain to develop the rapid eye movement of sleep that is so needed for the brain to do it’s work.

What can you do if you are children’s minister?

  • Develop a relationship with the single parent and then educate them on what sleep deprivation can do to a child.
  • Work with the child and help them to develop a bedtime routine. Some older elementary age children can develop their own routine and use the routine at both parent’s homes. Print out the child’s routine and laminate it if needed.
  • Help the child realize God created our bodies to need sleep. Share stories from the Bible about sleep. Even Jesus needed sleep. Matthew 8:23-24 Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping.”

I’ve had more than one child come to DC4K  and fall asleep. These are not kids that are bored but they are kids that feel safe, get comfortable and can relax at DC4K.

There was a second grader at a church in Raleigh who was out of control on the first night of DC4K. During the read aloud story time the Safekeeper reading the story stopped, looked over at this over active boy and said, “Come here.”

She then proceeded to wrap him in a blanket, almost swaddled him actually, scooped him up under her arm and proceeded with the story. This took a total of about 10 seconds. We watched as this child’s body began to relax and within minutes he was sound asleep. We let him sleep and when his mom came to pick him up one of our men carried him to her car. He slept the entire night. The next day he had one of his best days at school since the divorce.

Understand that children who do not get enough sleep have brains that struggle learning and remembering. These kids are emotionally explosive and can become disruptive to themselves and everyone around them.

After reading this article can you remember a child who was out of control that might have had sleep deprivation? Share your story with us.


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Want to learn more about how to start a DivorceCare for Kids group for the hurting children in your community? Click here.

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