Can a two year old be traumatised?
I was asked recently how to help a two year old settle at night. The wonderful book “The Rabbit who Wants to Fall Asleep” wasn’t working, along with countless other things that the beleaguered parents had tried. This came up in conversation during a mindful hypnobirthing class, and myself and another CBT therapist both got completely side tracked, and set about trying to find the answer to the problem, by asking the parents (who are tired, sick of advice, and frankly, stuck), lots of questions about their troublesome two year old.
Given that I was supposed to be running a hypnobirthing class, I had to curb my curiosity, and my urge to help, and get the subject back to talking about birth and babies – which was the object of the day. However, my brain remembers that there was unfinished business, so I’m going to finish it in the form of this blog.
It got really interesting when they said that their little girl’s sleep patterns had been fine, until, during the summer, their cat had jumped in through the window, onto her bed, in the middle of the night, waking her up with an awful shock.
Since then, she fusses about going to bed, she imagines all sorts of things that are scary in her bedroom, and she waked up in the middle of the night, and can’t go back to sleep unless she gets into her parents bed. Sound familiar? Of course it does. This is classic two year old behaviour. At the age of two, there is a strengthening of the child’s “attachment behaviour” (there is also one at about nine months old). This means that she is more likely to get clingy and want to know that her parents are around, so they can keep her safe. It kind of makes sense, because at the age of two, a child becomes more independent physically (she can run much faster) but she is also becoming more independent psychologically, because her neocortex is developing at a very fast rate. This means she can plan ahead, be persuaded into things by others, she can plan exciting things like how to run away from home and have an adventure, and so on. Thus, she is arguably a little more vulnerable to getting lost, or getting eaten by a wolf. Nature protects her by providing an in-built mechanism to keep her parents close. The attachment process is even stronger at night, because the child needs to be kept safe from the dark. Her imagination of “monsters” is formed at this age (tigers, wolves, strange men from warring tribes, etc.). These monsters are as real to her, as dangers of heights, flying, spiders, or whatever your personal fear might be. She just does not feel safe, and she can’t explain why, just as we can’t explain why we don’t feel safe in the presence of a tiny cute spider that we know can’t harm us.
So, unfortunately, in the case of our little girl and her cat, this cat jumped on her bed at a critical point in her development. It fast tracked and heightened her need to know that her parents are close in the middle of the night, and made her needs for a strong attachment much stronger. However, I also think it traumatised her. This means, that the experience got “wedged” in the limbic system (the alarm signal of our brain) and hasn’t been processed as a memory. In other words, when she goes to bed at night, her alarm system triggers “oh no, this is where I’m not safe, this is where scary things happen to me”. Her alarm system is trying to protect her, but it has got it wrong. Her alarm system thinks that she is still in danger, when in fact, she is perfectly safe (the window is closed, and the cat cannot jump on her again). However, with her amygdala firing off, she is struggling to settle at night, even when a lovely hypnotic cd is being played.
In therapy, when I help a person recover from trauma, the single most important thing is for the person to feel safe. You cannot recover from trauma while your alarm system is firing. It will listen to nothing else, no logic, no reason, no nothing. To get the brain to “listen” and process the memory, we have to calm the amygdala first and foremost. I do this with relaxation and hypnotic techniques. But in the case of the little girl, the thing that helps her feel safe is the proximity of her parents. So, here is my advice for how to help this little girl settle at night, and how to help her parents get some much needed sleep.
- Go to bed with her (or sit in the room with her) and stay there silently, while she falls asleep. You can use this time to practice your meditation, or mindfulness techniques. You can use this time to notice her breathing near you, to notice the warmth of her body, to notice how jittery and lively your own mind is, and to learn to calm it. Do not focus on whether she is sleeping or not, as she will notice this tension. Just focus on your own wish to relax and be mindful. You might even get a power nap yourself. The need to do this will pass. It might take a few months to be honest, but a few weeks might be enough. At some point, she won’t care whether you are actually in the room or not, so long as she feels safe, and so long as she feels sleepy. The argument about whether you can “spoil” a child, or whether she might be attention seeking, or “playing you” is worthy of a whole other blog. Just trust me for now, that if you meet her needs (for security) without additional gains (such as playing, or fun), then you will not make things worse.
- At other times in the day, talk to her about the cat incident that “happened when you were so little” or “that happened so long ago” or “that cannot not happen any-more”. Get her to tell the story, draw it, or act it out between the two of you. Make it a game, make it fun. Finish the “story” with a definitive “it’s over”. For example, if you are “playing” the cat game, and you are the cat, make a point of being thrown out of the room, and not ever being allowed back in. Or she can pretend to be “mummy” and cuddle her doll better, after the doll got a shock from the cat, and explain to her doll that the cat won’t do that again because the window is locked now. (Being cuddled better might be important, because in my experience, a lot of trauma comes from a sense of having felt alone at the time of the trauma). You won’t need to do this more than a few times for it to have done the job of helping her brain to process the event as a “memory” rather than an ongoing “danger”.
I know that these parents have the wholehearted sympathy of so many parents who are tired, exhausted, confused, fed-up, worried, beyond caring, bewildered, all because they have the joys of a two year old in their lives. Good luck with it, and know that it really does get an awful lot easier as they get older J