Monkey Mind at Bedtime, Reflecting on Children’s Thinking
“I just can’t go to sleep!” E said summoning me well after our nightly bedtime ritual had taken place. When I guided him back to bed, he layed down and flopped his feet up in the air with his body in a constant wiggle. Since I observed his physical restlessness first, I gently guided him to get in his “cozy position,” as we tend to call it – ready to go to sleep. But as I talked with him, I realized, it was his mind that was far more active than his body. So I simply asked, “What are you thinking about?” His response was uttered with frustration. “Simon told me that Sarah doesn’t like me. My teacher gave us a huge project we have to work on. The toy catalogue came in the mail. I want the Batman…monkey, monkey, swimming pool, monkey.” Okay, that may not be an exact quote but you get the idea. He began with conversational sentences and moved quickly into words and phrases following his runaway train of thought. And I could tell he was viewing his thoughts as a “monkey on his back,” an annoyance that he couldn’t tame or calm.
Bedtime can be a difficult time of day for children of all ages. It may be one of the quietest, most reflective times in their day. For some, it’s the first time they will have the chance to process all of the many activities and social interactions they had. And so often, thoughts turn to problems that they are trying to work out or upsets that occurred. The feelings that accompany rumination – like worry, anxiety and frustration – may be compounded by a discomfort or fear of being alone, separated from parents, and being in the dark. In order to unpack his feelings and move toward getting to sleep, I asked him, “Can you tell me what you are frustrated about?” His response surprised me and shed light on how I could help him. “Everyone else (read: ‘everybody in the world except me’) can go to sleep just like that. They can get calm. I can’t!”
Helping your child understand and deal with his monkey mind at bedtime can help him and your entire family. Instead of feeling helpless, he can find ways to “sit in the driver’s seat of his train of thoughts.” Children can be guided to think about their thinking (in scientific terms, metacognition) and facilitate their own reflection and letting go process to self-soothe into sleep with some practice and guidance from you. Dr. Sameet Kumar in his book, The Mindful Path through Worry and Rumination writes “Change begins with observation.” And from the words of John Dewey, the educational theorist, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” And so as you try and assist your child, you want to help him observe his own ways of thinking and guide reflection on them in order to support him in changing his thoughts and preparing for a good night’s sleep.
Interestingly, my child’s frustrations with his own thinking were putting his brain into flight, flight or freeze mode – his danger signal activated. There will be no going to sleep when your primal brain or survival mode has taken over. So if your child is consistently restless at bedtime, it may be worth finding out what they are thinking. Are they frustrated with their thoughts? Here are some ways you might go about it.
Find out your child’s thoughts. My own child’s thoughts were a big messy jumble in his head with no continuity. The more he wrestled with that big jumble, the more frustrated he became with his inability to sort them out. So ask your child, “What thoughts keep coming up? What are your worries? If I were leaving you to go to sleep, what kind of thoughts would come into your head?” You may hear a similar spilling out of many disparate thoughts. That’s okay and important in order for your child to begin to process and unravel the jumble.
Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. Help untangle the mess of thoughts that creates a monkey mind at bedtime. Whatever you do at bedtime whether its reading a book, saying a prayer or singing a lullaby, include reflections from the day. There are two simple but key components to this reflection.
- Begin by asking about worries or problems that your child will surely consider after you leave the room. Listen and offer comfort. Demonstrate that you are allowing and accepting the uncertainty of unresolved problems. There’s no amount of worrying that is going to fix things tonight. So how can you talk about accepting what you have and where you are now and working on it tomorrow?
2. Then, turn to gratitude. Children may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day yet grateful thoughts can be a central contributor to happiness and well-being. And grateful thoughts directly wipe out ruminations. So ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?”
Describe your child’s thoughts as ocean waves. In order to help my child think about his thinking, we discussed the ocean waves. I asked him to pretend he was standing in the ocean up to his middle and the waves were coming. “What happens if you fight the waves?” I asked. He easily responded, “It’s hard. I can’t stay up and I’m pushing and falling over.” He was so frustrated with his thoughts that he was fighting them like the waves. And he understood this as a nine-year-old. “What happens when you ride the waves?” I asked. And the response is obvious. You go with the flow. You accept your thoughts for what they are. You don’t try to beat them back but accept them and gently move with them. Going with the waves offers your child a physical example of self-compassion. If your child does not have positive associations with ocean waves (maybe he fears them?), then use another analogy like fighting a train versus riding the train.
Talk about rumination – the endless hamster wheel. Find out if there are particular thoughts that keep coming up with no resolution. We all experience the hamster wheel. And we often hold the misconception that if we continue to worry those same worries, somehow it will prevent something bad from happening. We think all of our vigilance will contribute to our safety. But in fact, the wheel continues without doing anything but consuming our mind and deepening our anxiety. So how do you hop off the wheel? Thinking about your thinking – coming into awareness of your thoughts – is a critical first step. Becoming present through breathing can bring your focus to the moment. And accepting right where you with your thoughts and feelings with compassion all contribute to gaining a perspective and no longer needing the wheel. This is the practice of mindfulness.
Find your cozy position. This is the place that if you didn’t move a muscle, you could be comfortable falling asleep. But before you do, you may need to get out the wiggles first. Stand up together and do all over shake as hard as you can. Then sink into the bed and see if you feel calmer. Or guide a relaxation process that promotes body awareness and mindfulness like the following. Lie down side by side on the floor or on the child’s bed, backs to the floor. Close your eyes and ask your child to close his as well. Using a gentle voice, ask your child to pretend there is a tennis ball at the base of his feet. Ask him to try and grab the ball with his whole foot including his toes with all his might. Ask him to hold it for a few seconds. Then, let the ball go. Now ask him to pretend the ball is between his ankles. Squeeze the imaginary ball as hard as possible for a few seconds and then, let it go. Try this all the way up the body including at his knees, on his tummy, between his arms and his side, in his hands, at his neck and at the back of his head where it touches the floor. Each time squeeze for a few seconds and then release. This will guide a child to notice each part of his body, focus on that part and send relaxation to that part of the body letting the tension go.
Breathe deeply together. We all have experienced the awareness of our slowed rhythmic breathing that occurs right before we fall asleep. Begin that kind of breathing with your child. Lay right next to him. You can even place his hand on your diaphragm so that he feels that you are breathing deeply. You can also emphasize the sound of your deep breathing so that he mimics and follows you. Use this right before you say “Good night.”
I notice that the deep breathing we do before I leave his room adds to my own sense of calm in the evenings and it’s a welcome release. Take some time with your child to guide him through this process. Our sleep is an essential prerequisite for our health and well-being during the day. Educators know that there is no more important way a parent can support learning in school than to help get children to bed on time and assist them in going to sleep. Even if you are diligent about bedtimes, your child still may be lacking the needed rest because of worrisome thoughts keeping him up. Your reflections and practice will offer invaluable skills for calming his mind, releasing tensions and going to sleep.
Kumar, Sameet M. (2009). The mindful path through worry and rumination, Letting go of anxious and depressive thoughts. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
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