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Kids with Two Bedrooms: Navigating Divorce at Bedtime

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Divorce can elicit dozens of contradictory and confusing feelings: sadness, fear, anger, doubt, bittersweetness, and relief. Although adults are at the center of divorces, this can also be a difficult time for children.

In 2021, there were almost two million marriages1, and there were close to 700,000 divorces in America (across the 45 states that reported these statistics). Anger, anxiety, and depression, which are the emotions2 often associated with divorce, can play a huge role in the way that adults and children sleep.

If your children are having a hard time sleeping after your divorce, we will break down some of the possible causes and offer up some tips that may help restore peace and tranquility in the bedroom.

Effects of Divorce on Children

While divorce is difficult for parents, the effects of divorce can be felt by children of any age and may last for the rest of their lives. Some of the issues3 that you may notice in kids after their parents divorce are depression, academic struggles, and substance use problems.

Sadly, some children think that they are responsible4 for the divorce, and many are likely to misbehave in some fashion as a way to cope with things like new living arrangements, financial changes, and daily schedules. Further, a child’s sense of loss might heighten, especially during events like birthdays, holidays, and celebrations. The age of the child can also influence the experience.

Infants

Although it may seem like babies would not be affected by divorce considering that they don’t understand what it means, they can sense that something is off with their parents.

Parents may act irritated, worried, or sad during a divorce, and babies may mirror these emotions. When a baby is stressed, it may be more challenging for them to fall asleep, they may wake through the night and have more frequent nightmares5.

Toddlers and Pre-Schoolers

Although you may have heard parents joking about this, toddlers truly do think the world revolves around them. This is because they have not yet fully learned to understand multiple perspectives, and when their parents divorce they tend to think of how it will affect them. When coupled with the fact that they don’t yet know how to manage strong feelings, it could lead to them acting out. One such way may be in being uncooperative at bedtime as they may be angry at the parent who is not there or concerned about who will be there when they get up in the morning.5

School Age Children

When parents of children in elementary school6 divorce, they may notice more temper tantrums and mood swings, as well as aggressive tendencies. These behaviors can lead to disrupted sleep, and kids might also have persistent nightmares.

Feelings of rejection and split loyalty are more common among children of divorced families, stemming from the juggling of two households or one absent parent. Performance at school may decrease in school-aged kids while grappling with separation anxiety.

Adolescents and Teenagers

Adolescents and teenagers with divorced parents often grow up more quickly and display independence. While struggling with the realization that their parents have problems, teens often distance themselves, and relationships may suffer as a result.

Low self-esteem, substance abuse, poor performance at school, depression, sexual misconduct, and aggression often occur in teenagers with divorcing parents. All of these can lead to sleep disturbances and disorders, and because adolescents need more rest around this age, they can get caught in a very unhealthy cycle.6

Dreams and Nightmares

Ever dream about something happening in your life? My dreams tend to reflect my worst anxieties — and I know I’m not alone.

Roger Harnish, a psychology professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, says:

“Research suggests that many of our dreams appear to be about our unfinished business, particularly our emotionally unfinished business.”

There is still a lot to unlock about why we dream. However, the prevailing thought amongst experts is that dreams7 serve as “rehearsals” for real-life situations. Therefore, it may be no surprise that children (and adults, for that matter) who are going through something difficult have more troubling dreams. Nightmares are most common in children beginning between ages 3 to 6 and are commonly caused by stress and anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic8. Certainly, divorce can create feelings of stress and anxiety in all those involved.

Sleep deprivation can also be a reason for consistent nightmares.7 Children of divorce often get less sleep than those in a two-parent household, so bad dreams can be more frequent.8 Not to mention, nightmares themselves can make sleep complicated, especially for younger kids.

Occasional nightmares might not be a cause for concern, but if they are recurring, you may want to have a chat with your kid’s pediatrician.

Learn More: How to Ease Toddler Nightmares

Stress-Related Sleep Disorders

Some children experiencing stress can form a sleep disorder that seriously impairs their rest. Below is a list of some common disorders that are caused by a stressful external environment and some symptoms. Keep in mind that just because your child is experiencing some of these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean that they have a disorder; talk with their doctor to get a proper diagnosis.

Insomnia

Definition: Problems falling and staying asleep9.

Symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty being put to bed
  • Excessively tired during the day
  • Mood swings
  • Short attention span
  • Depression
  • Aggression

Childhood Insomnia/Sleep-onset Association Disorder

Definition: Type of behavioral insomnia where children associate sleep with specific factors10 and have difficulties sleeping without them.

Symptoms can include:

  • Child waking during the night
  • Unsettled without a certain environment, such as the car, nursing, or being rocked

Sleepwalking

Definition: Also known as somnambulism, sleepwalking is the occurrence of getting out of bed11 when still asleep.

Symptoms can include:

  • Exhaustion during the day
  • Night terrors
  • Difficulty waking during an episode
  • Strange behavior while sleepwalking
  • Disorientation after waking

Nightmare Disorder

Definition: Dreams filled with anxiety, distress, or fear 12 that wake you up.

Symptoms can include:

  • Frequently occurring nightmares
  • Regular disruption of sleep
  • Problems with daytime functioning and exhaustion
  • Bedtime anxiety and/or fear of the dark
  • Issues concentrating

Is Co-sleeping a Bad Idea?

When bedtime problems arise, especially disordered sleep, parents often resort to co-sleeping. Bed-sharing is a pretty controversial topic, and varying cultures have differing practices. However, the American Association of Pediatrics13 (AAP) recommends that infants sleep in the same room on a separate surface for the first six months of life.

The AAP goes on to state that although they respect that parents choose to bed share for cultural reasons, breastfeeding facilitation, and a variety of other reasons based on their evidence, they are unable to recommend bed sharing under any circumstances.13

There are other ways to co-sleep with your baby, though, such as the sidecar arrangement and room sharing.

Co-sleeping in the same bed can be comforting and convenient. However, the AAP believes that the pros do not outweigh the cons on this matter and you shouldn’t share a bed. Just remember that when it comes to children of divorced parents, if one co-sleeps and the other doesn’t, this may lead to confusion and irritation for the child.

Co-sleeping can comfort your struggling child by having you close, but it can make sleep difficult if you are not around some nights or have joint custody. Ultimately, it is your decision; you know what is best for you and your kid.

Tips for Coping at Bedtime

Bedtime with kids is hard enough, but trying to get a child dealing with life-altering circumstances to sleep can be a challenge. With two separate houses, potential conflict between parents, and adjustments with routines and possibly school, sleep might fall low on the list of priorities; however, your child needs a good night’s rest. The following tips should help make your nights a bit easier.

Expect an Adjustment Period

Big changes are happening in your child’s life, and it is expected that sleep, among other things, will be disrupted too. You might see some regressions in your child’s behavior, but do not be overly concerned. Children who used to suck their thumb might start up again, bed-wetting could occur, and night terrors may arise.

Because they are under stress, anticipate frequent night wakeups and difficulty settling to sleep. In tougher circumstances, sleep disorders like insomnia can occur. Change in routine, such as holidays or weekend visits to their other parent’s house, might trigger these responses. If you are concerned about the way your child is coping or the amount of time it takes them to adjust, consider talking with their pediatrician.

Work with Your Ex

If you are divorced or in the process, you probably are not on the best of terms with your ex. Having kids in the mix can make things harder because consistent interaction is necessary for them to have a good relationship with both parents. The best way to ease that adjustment is by having a gameplan with your ex.

Not being on the same page and exposing your children to parental conflict14 can lead to emotional distress and behavioral problems. Plus, stability is vital, as kids tend to respond better to consistent discipline, acceptance and love from parents, and a comfortable routine, according to one study15.

If custody is still being decided, try to be reasonable about allotted time, and if custody has been arranged, be sure to follow the agreement. Plan changes are inevitable and might require accommodations on your part, and although this could be frustrating at times, try to keep things cordial. Communicating through text or email may be your best bet because you have time to formulate a proper response rather than react without thinking.

A willingness to work together may be the most important factor in helping kiddos adjust to a new normal, and it is necessary to successfully utilize the tips below.

Avoid Venting in Front of Your Kids

This is a tough one, especially for those going through a divorce. A separation most likely insights frustration, anger, and sadness, and when feeling those things, people tend to vent. Because the source of these strong emotions is probably your spouse, it can put your children in a difficult spot.

Conflicting feelings of love and resentment can crop up, and your child might think they need to choose sides. To maintain healthy parent/child relationships (considering that they were present pre-divorce), try to keep the venting to a minimum around your kids.

Agree on a Sleep Routine

People thrive on routine, and your child is no different. When it comes to bedtime, routines are no joke; studies have shown that establishing a ritual before bed increases children’s sleep quality16.

If the routine is different or nonexistent at either parent’s house, kids might have a harder time getting settled. Once a bedtime system has been formed, keeping them as similar as possible can help things go more smoothly. It does not have to be complex; it can be as simple as bath, jammies, story, and bed.

Whatever works for both parents will do, just try to stick to it and do things in the same order each night.

Create Relaxing Bedrooms in Both Homes

As kids learn to navigate going back and forth between two homes, it will be important to create relaxing, familiar, and comfortable bedrooms in both places. Your sleep environment17 has a tremendous effect on how well you sleep.

Think of your child’s bedroom as their haven. It should be a place where they feel safe, and they will want to be comforted by what surrounds them. This may mean that the parents need to communicate about how the rooms will be decorated, as well as an agreement on what kind, or if any, electronics will be allowed in each bedroom. The blue light from electronics18 like smartphones and tablets tricks our bodies into thinking it’s light out and time to be awake. If your children are surrounded by the artificial light of electronics, they will have a harder time falling asleep.

Consider Counseling

Divorce can be very stressful, but research has shown that most people, including children, cope successfully19 with the stress. However, counseling can be an excellent way for kids to learn coping mechanisms as they charter the waters of divorce. Counseling can be a good way to help children learn to cope with the changes that are brought on by divorce.

When it comes to their bedtime and getting quality sleep, stress can interfere with many facets of your nightly routine. Counselors may be able to equip parents and children with the tools needed to relax and fall into a restful slumber.

Conclusion

Divorce brings about changes, often stressful ones, for everyone involved. However, it may be especially hard on children, no matter their age. Stress and anxiety are two big culprits when it comes to sleep issues. Therefore, it is understandable that children may act differently at bedtime post-divorce. To prevent nightly meltdowns, parents will want to make sure that they try to follow the same routine at both homes, as well as provide a comforting sleep environment for their kids.

Considering that the stress may lead to issues such as nightmares and insomnia, it is beneficial to have a plan of action and to seek counseling to gain more insight into what may be keeping your kids up at night. Fortunately, many kids of divorce don’t experience lasting damage, and with proper steps, they should be able to sleep better throughout this period.19

Jill Zwarensteyn

Jill Zwarensteyn

Editor

About Author

Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Combination Sleeper

References:
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  2. Gold Buscho PhD, Ann. “The Real Long-Term Physical and Mental Health Effects of Divorce”. Psychology Today. 2022.
  3. D’Onofrio, Brian., Emery, Robert. “Parental divorce or separation and children’s mental health”. World Psychiatry. 2019. 
  4. “How to Help Your Child After a Breakup or Divorce”. Cleveland Clinic. 2021.
  5. Hunter, Jane., Trussell, Jessica. “Helping Infants and Toddlers Adjust to Divorce”. University of Missouri. Webpage accessed June 14, 2023.
  6. Wallace, Lisa., Sparks, Kay. “Helping Preteens and Adolescents Adjust to Divorce”. University of Missouri. Webpage accessed June 14, 2023.
  7.  “Why Do We Dream?”. Cleveland Clinic. 2022.
  8. “Nightmare disorder.” Mayo Clinic. Last modified June 5, 2021. 
  9. “What Is Insomnia”. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Last modified March 24, 2022.
  10.  “Childhood Insomnia”. Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine. Webpage accessed June 14, 2023.
  11. “Sleepwalking”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified July 21, 2017.
  12. “Nightmare Disorder”. Cleveland Clinic. Webpage accessed June 14, 2023.
  13. Moon MD, Rachel Y., Carlin MD, Rebecca. “Sleep-Related Infant Deaths: Updated 2022 Recommendations for Reducing Infant Deaths in the Sleep Environment”. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2022.
  14. Shaw, Daniel S., Winslow, Emily B., Flanagan, Clare. “A Prospective Study of the Effects of Marital Status and Family Relations on Young Children’s Adjustment among African American and European American Families”. Child Development. 2023.
  15. Grossman PhD, Mary., Rowat PhD, Kathleen M. “Parental relationships, coping strategies, received support, and well-being in adolescents of separated or divorced and married parents”. Research in Nursing & Health. 1995.
  16. Mindell, J. A., Williamson, A. A. “Benefits of a bedtime routine in young children: Sleep, development, and beyond.” Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2018.
  17. “Your Bedroom for Better Sleep”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed June 14, 2023. 
  18. “Are Electronic Devices Impacting Your Sleep?”. UCLA Health. 2019.
  19. “Helping Children Cope with Divorce”. Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT). Webpage accessed June 14, 2023.