Sleep and Snacks
We all know, when our kids are very little, that maintaining naps and keeping a snack station in our diaper bag is critical to our kids' happiness. Every parent has struggled through the hours when a kid misses their nap "window" and woe be to the parent who doesn't have something to nibble on during a busy afternoon. When they are little, when they understand less of the world, it is easy to remember that keeping them rested, fed and exercised is the key to happiness.
These needs, for all humans, don't disappear as we get older. I know adults who get hangry when dinner is delayed and Moms who make the simplest of errors because they are sleep deprived. Exercise- going outside- has been proven to cure so many ailments. It makes sense, then, that our older children- late elementary age through high school- must also be mindful of their need for rest and food and activity.
Yet, with after-school activities, sports and social engagements, eating and resting often go onto the back burner. Kids grab candy to get themselves through the afternoon slump, or binge-eat Taco Bell at 4pm. To make matters worse, a lot of unhappy kids have trouble with sleeping- they either can't get to sleep in a timely manner or they wake up at all hours, sneaking into their parents' bed in the middle of the night. And, crazy schedules mean there is more time in a car going to and fro, than there is to go outside to play.
Research has shown that lack of sleep and exercise, and poor nutrition, can have some of the same effects as ADHD, Depression and Anxiety. These factors cause irritability, distraction, lack of focus and a build-up of nervous energy. A body out-of-balance can send already-raging hormones haywire. As a therapist, I must rule-out all physiological causes of a child's distress before I can even consider a mental health issue. This means that we can't seriously evaluate a kid's social/emotional/behavioral health until we know that they are getting the right amount of sleep, food and exercise they need for the day.
Setting a strict household routine, that makes sure your big guy is getting good food and rest and exercise, is a critical first step that is often overlooked when we're trying to help an unhappy person.
Kids need a bedtime routine that is consistent and they need 9-12 hours of sleep. Their going-to-sleep routine needs to happen in a dark, quiet room with no screens to influence this process. If a child is having a hard time getting to sleep, sometimes white noise can help until their routine is solidified. You can also try aromatherapy (lavender) and meditation/mindfulness exercises.
Snacks need to be plentiful, but they must be the healthy kind; think fruits and veggies, as opposed to high-sugar or processed junk. Dinners need to be well-rounded with protein for satiety and veggies for gut health.
Getting outside, moving our body, is something every person needs. Even if it means 20 minutes walking the dog or a quick ride around the block on a bike, your kid needs sunshine and a chance to let go of the energy they stockpile while sitting in a controlled classroom all day.
Just like when our kids were little, when you are faced with a disgruntled older child, evaluate whether or not they need a snack, some rest or maybe some fresh air. Sometimes, a piece of fruit or a few minutes shooting hoops outside can make a world of difference.