Are you missing the signs of tiredness in your child?

The simple fact is that growing and developing is extraordinarily hard work.  For this reason, children very easily become tired.  Yet I believe that we often miss the signs of tiredness in our children.  Many physical symptoms, emotional patterns and behavioural tendencies arise from or become exacerbated when a child is tired.  I have seen many children in my clinic whose symptoms go away when they start getting an hour’s more sleep each night, or when their hectic daily schedule is reduced.  And fatigue can look different in a child to how it might look in an adult.  In this blogpost, I am going to focus on pre-teen children and I will discuss teenagers in another post.

Tiredness and energy levels

One of the key ways in which a young child’s tiredness may manifest differently to that of an adult is that it does not necessarily mean that they want to sit around and do nothing.  Young children are hard-wired to please their parents, on whom they entirely depend for their survival.  If a child knows, albeit unconsciously, that their parents approve of them doing lots of sport or pushing themselves hard to learn an instrument, it is easy for them to ignore any signals their body may be sending them that what they actually need to do is rest.

It is also easy for parents not to recognise the signs of tiredness in their children.  Children’s bodies are rather like batteries.  They may give no obvious signals that they are about to run out until they moment they do.  One minute they keep going on full pelt; the next minute they are completely flat.   

Tiredness and hyperactivity

Many toddlers and young children become more hyperactive the more tired they are.  They find it difficult to be still and resist anything that might require them to stop moving (e.g going to bed!).  Their emotions are often expressed more strongly when they are tired and it can feel to the parent as if everything ‘ramps up’. Ironically, tired children can be exhausting to be around because adults often experience them as being especially frenetic.  

There is a clear reason for this in Chinese medicine terms.  The balance of yin (calming energy) and yang (active energy) is different in children than it is in adults.  Children’s yin is ‘insubstantial’ and has not yet fully matured.  At the same time, a young child has an excess of yang energy.  The more tired a child becomes, the less yin there is available to ‘root’ their abundant yang.  If yang is not rooted, it rises up to the head.  This causes agitation, intense expression of emotion and the child may feel as if they have just had a strong coffee!

Tiredness and sleep

Ironically, the more tired a child is, the worse they may sleep.  This is for the same reason that children become more hyperactive when tired too, as described above.  An overtired child may take longer to get off to sleep in the evening, have more disturbed sleep during the night and wake up earlier in the morning.  

Other signs of tiredness in a young child

There are of course many other ways in which a child may reveal their fatigue.  Some of the most common are:

  • being grumpy 
  • saying ‘I’m bored’ 
  • heightened emotions of any kind, for example becoming more anxious, more fearful, more worried or more angry. 
  • saying ‘I don’t feel well’ or ‘I’ve got a tummy-ache’ 
  • increased clinginess: young children do not only feed off their mother’s milk. They rely on the qi of their main caregivers in order to keep going.  This is because their own qi system has not yet fully-developed.  When a child becomes tired they then rely on another’s qi even more in order to keep going.  This is often the root of a child’s clinginess.

So, of course we should not put everything down to tiredness, but it may help both parents and children to be able to more accurately spot the ‘hidden’ signs of tiredness in a child.  I have heard many a parent say that their child just does not seem to need much sleep.  The reality is that the child has become so tired that they just cannot sleep, and they are ‘running on empty’.  Looking at how to promote sleep in children will be the subject of another post.  In the meantime, if you think your child is chronically tired, a first simple step can be to start putting them to bed half an hour or an hour earlier in the evening.  You may be surprised at just what a difference it can make!

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