Most parents have uttered the words, “Early bedtime for you!” Maybe our child was whining and tired and barely able to hold their eyes open. Maybe we sent them to bed early because they could not stop teasing their little sibling. Or if we are honest, maybe it was because we were tired, crabby, and in need of some quiet time ourselves.
At Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, we have learned that early bedtimes are not effective. The reasons for this are both simple and complex. The simple reason is there is no natural consequence or connection between most misbehaviors and going to bed early, nor do early bedtimes teach a new skill.
For example, if a child is swearing at 9 a.m., and the consequence is an early bedtime, did that child learn a different way to express their anger? Probably not. Not only did the 11-hour lapse make it unlikely the child would even remember why they had to go to bed early, but an early bedtime is not a natural consequence for swearing.
Unfortunately, for many Ranch children, the negative consequences of early bedtimes are much more complex. In our kids’ lives, the bedroom is not always a source of positive memories or sweet dreams. Instead, an early bedtime may trigger negative, painful, or traumatic memories. For instance, being sent to their room might bring up memories of being locked in their room for hours at a time. Or maybe their bedroom is where they hid to escape the arguing or domestic violence happening in their home.
For other children, the bedroom is where bad things happened to them. Being told to go to bed early by their abuser may have been the signal that tonight would be when they would be abused. The majority of children who are sexually abused, are abused in a bedroom, if not their own bedroom. How excited would you be to go to bed early when you associate sleep with being defenseless, and a time when you might awake to someone invading your personal space?
Sleep means letting your guard down and losing awareness of what is happening around you. This is a very anxiety-provoking experience if your safety and survival are contingent upon constant scanning of your environment for danger.
If you have ever sent your child to bed early, did you emotionally scar or traumatize your child? Most likely not. If the bedroom is not a scary place at your house, it probably didn’t hurt them at all.
But for kids at the Ranch, the bedroom can be fraught with negative memories.
We sit with them—and work with them one-by-one—to figure out how they can let their guard down and make new memories of their bedroom as a place of safety—a place to lay down their head and rest.