Strong-Willed or Just Really Tired? Part 1

2017-10-08 13.56.37Growing up, I remember being called “strong-willed” or “stubborn” frequently.  My youngest sister often heard those particular adjectives attached to her personality, as well.  The terms were usually spoken with an eye roll and a frustrated, I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-this-kid attitude.  

Here’s a picture showing the two of us, taken in Costa Rica–I was about 11 or 12 and was hugging my grandmother.  Hannah was 3 or 4.  Do you notice any similarities between us (besides the blond hair)? We both look exhausted!


I’m now all grown up, married, and have 3 young children of my own.  I still have what my husband affectionately calls a “strong personality,” meaning once I decide something, it’s pretty difficult to change my convictions or stance.  He also calls me “determined” and “very self-disciplined.”  Those descriptions are much more complimentary than the adjectives I heard growing up.  Early on, when we were still dating, I asked Matt to please not label me as strong-willed or stubborn; those terms had always felt like insults to me.  Besides being determined and self-disciplined, I’m also still pretty tired, but I’ve discovered why: A combination of insomnia, a crazy schedule, and 3 energetic kids who are currently 4 years old and under.

I’ve always had a hard time sleeping.  As a kid, I remember feeling tired a majority of the time.  My parents have told me it took years for me to sleep through the night as a baby.  In first grade, the teacher asked my class what time we went to bed at night; she received a wide variety of answers, but I was the only one who responded, “I don’t really have a bedtime.”  Other kids looked at me in surprise and awe, but I was just telling the truth.

I didn’t always enjoy family vacations, because I usually had to share a bed with one of my sisters, and I hardly slept at all.  For years, I had permanent dark circles under my eyes and remember feeling a little embarrassed about them when I’d look in the mirror.  I remember laying in bed at night, trying in vain to go to sleep (or go back to sleep if I’d woken up for some reason), wishing to get the rest I desperately wanted and needed.  My parents and grandparents would compare me and my other sister (the middle sister, not the youngest), commenting on how quickly Sarah fell asleep and saying that “she must have a clear conscience” to be able to sleep so well.

In college, I remember talking with friends about how I honestly didn’t know how I would ever be able to share a bed with my future husband, because I just can’t sleep with someone else making noise or rolling over or pulling on the covers.  Everyone assured me I’d get used to it.

My undiagnosed but very apparent insomnia reached a boiling point when my husband and I had our first baby.  I literally could not go back to sleep at night after I woke up to feed my son.  And even worse, I developed a lot of anxiety about not being able to go back to sleep, so then I couldn’t go to sleep in the first place!  It was truly horrible.  I was probably getting a maximum of 4 hours of sleep at night, and even that was fragmented.  I was an exhausted, bad mom that resented the situation (but still loved that sweet baby).  I remember being so tired some days that it was actually difficult to breathe.  I was a train wreck.  I knew I needed help.  Since I was breastfeeding, I didn’t want to take any sleep medications, so I found a book on amazon called Say Good-Night to Insomnia.  I read it multiple times and determined to follow all of the instructions no matter how difficult–I was desperate to get much-needed rest.

And, slowly, I regained both my ability to sleep and the confidence that I can, in fact, sleep well (without needing any medications).  My son began sleeping through the night, and though it took several months, I started sleeping through the night, too!  I’m sleeping better now than I have my whole life, because now I know the pitfalls that were disrupting my sleep before.  I’ll share more specifics in my next post, just in case there are others struggling with insomnia like me.

But here’s the real reason I wanted to write this post: I am increasingly confident that many children who are labeled “strong-willed,” “stubborn,” or “difficult” are actually just really, really tired.  

How do you feel when you’re tired?  Are you happy, easy-going, and ready to learn or see the viewpoint of others?  Or are you cranky, impatient, and easily irritated?  If you’re tired and someone tells you to do something you don’t want to do, are you quick and happy to comply?  I know I’m not.  When I’m tired, I’m easily annoyed, frustrated, cranky, and on-edge.  Little things that usually wouldn’t phase me make me really angry.  I feel miserable and cranky, not happy or compliant.  I think the same is true of our kids.

Because of my intense struggle with insomnia, I determined to do everything in my power to help my children learn to sleep well and grow up well-rested and happy.  The most helpful book I’ve read is called Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by a pediatrician sleep-specialist named Marc Weissbluth.  I still pull that book out for guidance when one of my kids isn’t sleeping well or their sleep pattern is changing once again.  I’ll talk about more specifics and guidelines for babies and kids in my next post.  I think there are many kids out there who just aren’t getting adequate rest.

My house has been called “the napping house” because I make adequate sleep a priority.  With the exception of rare, important events or vacations, when my kids need to nap or go to sleep at bedtime, we’re at home and they get the sleep they need.  I’m not going to push them to the brink of exhaustion then throw up my hands in frustration, telling them how difficult and stubborn they’re being.  They need sleep, just like me.

I wanted to share my own lifelong struggle with insomnia to help others understand how their “difficult” child might just need more sleep.  In my next post, I’ll dive into more specifics.


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