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Adoption Techniques for Treating Adoptive Parent Issues
Adoptive Parent continuing education addiction counselor CEUs

Section 11
Psychological Adjustment: Sleep Problems

CEUs Question 11 | CEUs Test | Table of Contents | Adoption
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On the last track, we discussed trans-religious adoption. 

On this track, we will discuss sleep adjustments.  These will include vigilance, sleeping alone, refusal tactics and night terrors.

Sleep is an area we all need and something that many parents clearly sometimes do not get enough of during the initial adjustment to their adoptive child.  Yet, sleeping is one area in which many adopted children experience difficulties, in one way or another. 

I stated to Austin, age 40 and Holly, age 38, "It may be hard to believe that your adopted child is not as exhausted as you are, at the end of the day. In fact, children probably are, but that doesn’t mean that sleep will come easily to them.  Falling asleep is one of the most difficult things for newly adopted children to do for many reasons.  Foremost is probably the fact that when they fall asleep, they can no longer be vigilant about their safety and what’s going on in the house."

Austin, and Holly had recently adopted a 4-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son from Russia named Katya and Yuri. 

Holly stated, "Katya only cries at bedtime.  We aren’t sure how much of her crying is that she’s afraid she’ll wake up in the morning and our house won’t be there, or how much she misses having fourteen other children in the room with her.  But she doesn’t like going to bed and doesn’t want to cooperate at all.  Yuri, on the other hand, will go to bed easily, but wakes up sweating and screaming with night terrors!  It’s hard for us to go to bed knowing that we’ll wake up to our son shouting in the next room, not even recognizing us if we try to intervene!  This has been going on for six weeks now.  What can we do?"

4 Challenges of Sleep Adjustment

Challenge #1 - Vigilance
I stated, "First, let’s discuss vigilance.  I have found that ‘vigilant’ is often the word to describe many newly adopted children.  Even when they appear relaxed, newly adopted children often know where everyone in the household is, what they are doing, and how that information affects them.  Vigilance is a rush of adrenaline caused by fear activates this "fight or flight" response, preparing the body to protect itself by either fighting danger or fleeing from it."  Have you found, as I have, that newly adopted children often experience this sensation? 

I asked, "Are your children easily startled or anxious?"  Austin stated, "Loud noises or sudden movement often startle Katya…and Yuri often gets anxious when there is a lot of noise and activity."  I stated, "Those are all signs of vigilance."  I explained that another sign of vigilance was Katya and Yuri’s bedtime behavior.

I stated, "First let’s discuss Katya’s bedtime behavior.  Katya and likely knows that when she falls asleep, she no longer has any control over what happens to her.  Some children may have been moved while sleeping.  If this happened to Katya, it may explain why she resists sleep.  After all, how can Katya be sure that she will wake up in your house in the morning?  I have found that some kids fear being moved in their sleep, even if they have never experienced it.  Many children know that being asleep makes them more vulnerable.  In most cases, I have found that once a child becomes confident that he or she will not have to leave, the sleep problems gradually subside."

Challenge #2 - Sleeping Alone
Second, I discussed with Austin and Holly the issue of their adopted children sleeping alone.  I stated, "If Katya never slept alone, she may be frightened to do so.  On the other hand, some children may be uncomfortable sleeping in a room with someone else."  I explained that if Katya had been mistreated or abused when sharing a room with someone, she might also be anxious about bedtime. 

I encouraged Austin and Holly to engage Katya in gentle discussion about her nighttime fears to talk about the possibility of abuse in Katya’s history.  I stated, "Simple things like leaving lights on or allowing Katya to take a teddy bear or small blanket to bed may help her get to sleep.  Katya may be afraid of the dark."

Challenge #3 - Refusal Tactics
Third, in addition to vigilance and sleeping alone, Holly, Austin and I discussed refusal tactics.  As you know, children in general have many ways of avoiding bedtime.  Some refuse to change into pajamas or get into bed.  Others throw temper tantrums or begin weeping.  Some children become very interested in talking with their parents all of a sudden.  Parents often use elaborate nighttime rituals to ease their children into bed. 

I stated to Holly and Austin, "Over time, rituals might help Katya to form a pattern of expectations that ease her fears.  Allowing children to read, or, in Katya’s case, look at picture books, even to the point of falling asleep mid-story, may work for her if she has trouble keeping bad memories at bay.  Some families use nighttime banter between rooms to make bedtime a time of giggles.  Talking through the wall may emphasize to Katya that you are close by and have not left.  Sometimes, children need someone to sleep with them, or at least nearby."

Austin asked, "If one of us sleeps with Katya, won’t we be setting an expectation that will be hard to break, later?  I mean, won’t it be hard to ease her out of that habit?"  I stated, "There is truth to that.  You may be setting a precedent that will later be hard to break.  However, if Katya has experienced serious trauma in her life, a little accommodation can go a long way in easing her fear.  The decision, of course, is yours, and what feels right for you.  Katya may learn to sleep alone if you withdraw your presence gradually."

Challenge #4 - Night Terrors
Fourth, Austin, Holly and I discussed Yuri’s night terrors.  As you may know, night terrors are characterized by behavior such as crying, thrashing, kicking, moaning, mumbling and even running about. Night terrors are most likely to occur during partial arousal from deep, dreamless sleeps.  When experiencing a night terror, a child usually appears to be very confused, perhaps terrified, and may scream. 

The child is likely to breathe rapidly, sweat profusely and show other signs usually associated with fear.  The child does not recognize parents and is likely to push them away.  Sleep terrors can last from a few seconds to thirty or forty minutes and usually appear one to three hours after the onset of sleep.  When the episode ends, the child is likely to calm, wake briefly, and then go back to sleep, with no memory o f the episode in the morning. 

I stated, "Rousing Yuri into full wakefulness will probably be impossible and attempts to do so may only intensify and prolong the episode.  Normally, night terrors are common only in preschool-age kids."  I explained to Holly and Austin that being newly adopted, however, is one instance where stress and regression cause behaviors that don’t fit the rules in typical child care books.  I stated, "As draining and difficult as Yuri’s night terrors may be, as Yuri settles in and becomes more secure, his night terrors should subside."

In a later session, Holly stated, "One night, when I was putting Katya to bed, she said to me, ‘Katya no go back to detsky dom.’  Detsky dom was her orphanage, you see.  I said, ‘That’s right, Katya stays here forever.’  Her crying at night gradually subsided after this reassurance.  It was her declaration.  Katya needed to commit herself to us."

I have found that with time, many sleep problems disappear.  They may resurface, however, during times of change and stress.  Parents often report sleep difficulties if one of the parents is away on business, or if the family goes on vacation.  If sleep problems recur, reverting back to the tactics the parents tried earlier can possibly bring the situation back to normal.

Do you have a Holly or Austin whose adopted children have difficulties at bedtime?  Might he or she benefit from hearing this track?  On this track, we have discussed sleep adjustments.  These have included vigilance, sleeping alone, refusal tactics and night terrors.

On the next track, we will discuss eating difficulties.  These will include picky eating, overeating and undereating.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Conway, A., Cain, S., Granger, P., Lozano, H., & Gavin, A. R. (2021). Parent ethnic–racial socialization during childhood protects against increases in bedtime sleep problems in Black adolescents. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 91(2), 236–245.

Eaton, C. K., Henning, E., Lam, J., & Paasch, V. (2019). Actigraphy technology: Informing assessment and intervention for sleep disturbances in young children. Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology, 7(4), 347–357.

Francazio, S. K., Fahrenkamp, A. J., D'Auria, A. L., Sato, A. F., & Flessner, C. A. (2015). Parent psychopathology as a mediator of the relationship between anxiety and sleep problems in children. Families, Systems, & Health, 33(2), 146–154.

Goldberg, A. E., & Smith, J. Z. (2013). Predictors of psychological adjustment in early placed adopted children with lesbian, gay, and heterosexual parents. Journal of Family Psychology, 27(3), 431–442.

Rhoades, K. A., Leve, L. D., Harold, G. T., Mannering, A. M., Neiderhiser, J. M., Shaw, D. S., Natsuaki, M. N., & Reiss, D. (2012). Marital hostility and child sleep problems: Direct and indirect associations via hostile parenting. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(4), 488–498.

Tinker, E. C., Garrison, M. M., & Ward, T. M. (2020). Development of the Sleep Health in Preschoolers (SHIP) intervention: Integrating a theoretical framework for a family-centered intervention to promote healthy sleep. Families, Systems, & Health, 38(4), 406–417.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 11
What are four sleep difficulties that adoptive parents often experience in their children? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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