A high proportion of High Learning Potential (HLP) children experience unusual sleep patterns. These can include insomnia, active dreams, sleep talking, sleep walking, frequent waking or simply needing only a relatively short time asleep compared to ‘neuro-typical’ friends. Whereas this can be problematic for the child, what about the impact of long-term sleep deprivation on their parents or carers?
Science does not yet fully understand the relationship between gifted children and insomnia; however, it does seem to indicate that a full, restful night’s sleep helps protect young and old alike against many things from simple temporary tiredness to being prone to accidents and serious illness.
Sleep Deprivation In Carers
The issue of long-term sleep deprivation in carers of HLP children is all too often overlooked. Whereas images of life with a new-born baby stereotypically include sleepless nights; comedians, magazines or even your own friends and GP don’t expect you will endure broken sleep for 12 years rather than 12 months. For sleep-deprived parents who may be a decade into raising their HLP child(ren), support can feel impossible to find and certainly not on a par with the seriousness of the situation in many households.
“It is common for HLP guardians to struggle with tiredness because their children – and therefore they, too – are constantly ‘switched on’. Often there is no respite even at night-time as their child sits up reading aloud long after the adults have gone to bed […or they] routinely fail to sleep through the night. […] Unchecked, this can build up inside any carer and lead to feeling overwhelmed, worn out or even angry and resentful. This is totally understandable. The important thing is to take your own wellbeing very seriously, so that you have the mental and physical strength to cope calmly and lovingly – not just with your own challenges, but also with those of your high potential youngster.” PPUK Wellbeing for Carers
Consider an 11-year-old who, over the whole of his life, has only ‘slept through’ a small handful of times. His mother was diagnosed with exhaustion and ironically given sleeping tablets! Her friends got fed up of hearing about it and decided her son was just badly behaved. They recommended disciplining him, which simply made his mother feel guilty and did nothing to stop him being wide awake at 2am. After learning more about High Learning Potential, she began to understand differently, reassessed her son’s busy brain and started to find strategies that helped them both get some sleep.
However disheartening it can be to feel your friends, family and GP don’t understand the true nature and depth of your sleep issues, in some households, a further layer of stress can be the knock-on reaction of a partner, other children or elderly relatives. As you look out for everyone’s needs, it is crucial you also look out for your own. Find your own time of relaxation. Eat well. Resist your phone screen at bedtime. Ask for help and support from others in the household.
Does your child’s insomnia mean they rarely receive sleepover invitations? It is crucial you occasionally get to sleep through the night in your own bed, go out for the evening or have a short break away to recharge your batteries. You need this time to rebuild your strengths and to put quality time into your relationships with a co-parent, special friends, your wider support network…or yourself! Sometimes you have to simply be very honest and ask close friends or family for help in a way that works for you.
When a child’s behaviour points towards anxiety, you may need to involve your GP, a counsellor or CAMHS contact if you have one. Potential Plus UK’s free fact sheet PA 606 – Worry and Anxiety in High Learning Potential Children may help you.
However, as we help our children deal with their worries, we must also look after ourselves. Are you anxious? Do you know how to relax? Demonstrate the behaviour you would like others to copy and you will all benefit. For example, begin to meditate together, consider carefully the foods you all eat or go to the GP with your child to focus on their sleep disturbances –but also alone, to take seriously its effects on you.
Helping Your Child
- HLP parents suggest; calm time before bed, a low-level night-light, breathing exercises, meditation, audiobooks, weighted blankets and working around any sensory sensitivities – as well as being prepared to throw traditional advice out of the window!
- Read PPUK’s blog Wellbeing for Carers about the need for self-care as a parent and other sleep and wellbeing in-depth blogs in Potential Plus UK‘s HLP Parenting series.
- Check out PA605 Sleep and High Learning Potential Children which suggests several beneficial coping strategies to try if a child’s daytime behaviour is suffering or you as a carer are becoming exhausted.
- Find quality online resources, such as the NHS pages at https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/healthy-sleep-tips-for-children/ or leaflets from The Sleep Council at https://sleepcouncil.org.uk/resources-for-professionals/leaflets/
- Listen to the podcast ‘Gifted Children and Sleep’ at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYK9OtvhXGE .
Unfortunately, there is no single, simple answer. However, hopefully, there is a growing awareness that parents and carers of young HLP insomniacs need to prioritise their own rest in order to remain healthy, calm, resilient care-givers and role models.