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We have been having trouble with my seven year-old son when he is unattended at naptime and bedtime. When he can't sleep, he gets bored, and when he gets bored, he gets destructive. The latest was crayon drawing on the wall. He didn't have any paper to draw on, because he ripped that up previously. He has done things like rip books, tear the stuffing out of pillows and mattresses, eat a month's worth of candy, wake up his sister, cause a flood in the bathroom, peel paint off the walls, etc. I even caught him playing with matches once, which he got from our bedroom that is always locked (now with a better lock).

He doesn't need as much sleep as the rest of the family, which gives him one or two hours every day where this problem might happen. We don't really care if he doesn't sleep while we are. We have only two requirements: be quiet enough not to wake others, and don't be destructive.

However, what we've found ourselves doing is placing more and more restrictions in support of the primary ones. No crayons, paper, getting out of your room, etc. As his options get more limited, it exacerbates his boredom, and he finds more creative ways to be destructive. We would really like to expand his options, but every time we do, he finds a way to make it destructive.

So, aside from locking him in a padded cell (before we need one ourselves), what can we do to break this cycle? We know that something needs to change about quiet time, we just can't figure out what.

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I don't have any experience with 7 years olds, but have you a) asked him what he wants to do for 'quiet time'? b) it may not fit your parenting style, but is there a children's show he can watch? maybe with headphones? c) do you have a garden he can go out into that is safe? We have a small patch that is safe enough I can let my 3 year old go play in his sandbox without observation (it is impossible to get out of the garden except into the house). –  Ida Aug 20 at 19:27
    
Those ideas might work for naptime, but I'm not seeing it for night time. –  Karl Bielefeldt Aug 20 at 19:48
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I doubt many seven year old children take a daytime nap. Mine stopped mapping between four and five years old. Perhaps he can't sleep at night because you're trying to get him to sleep more than he can or should sleep. When I was seven, a giant set of tinker toys would have kept me out of trouble for an hour a day. –  Marc Aug 21 at 2:53
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You're wearing him out before bedtime, right? At 7 he's old enough for organized sports (if you're lucky enough to have some around there), or maybe he can bike or ride a skateboard or just do laps around the yard. (Our pediatrician says no running (running as in what adults do for exercise and stress relief, not just tearing around like kids do) until 8 for our kids, to give their tendons time to mature enough to handle the pounding of a run, but your pediatrician knows your kid much better and might have another opinion. –  Valkyrie Aug 21 at 12:01
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What is your reaction when you encounter destruction? What is his reaction to yours? Does this help you identify if there is spite involved, or remorse afterward, or any kind of hostile/moral emotions? –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Aug 21 at 19:52

3 Answers 3

I'll do a quick read across from my examples and see what helps:

My son has always needed 4-6 hours sleep a day. My middle daughter won't fall asleep until late (and gets up late) and my youngest can fall asleep at any time, but is an early riser.

So for my middle daughter, she was already into 1.5 to 2 hours training every evening after school, whether it was swimming, taekwon do or more general exercise with the Brownies. She'd usually have dinner after this, and then read a chapter of a book before bed. That's her out cold until morning.

For my eldest, he would also do about the same amount of physical training, but as he would get up really early we got him into reading in a big way, so he would quietly read to himself until he heard me get up. The reading was his distraction - and he has kept that going.

My youngest is actually easy. She does the same sort of exercise, will sleep 8 hours and bounce out of bed.

I would suggest using reading as a pre-bed calming process, rather than TV. TV led to some unsettled sleeps for us, and reading gets positive support from scientific research that it helps the brain relax more effectively.

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My son and your son are about the same age (mine is 6 1/2--he'll be 7 in February), and with school, Choi Kwong Do, and Cub Scouts, he goes to bed pretty exhausted every night. There is no time for naptime during the school year and he doesn't seem to want a nap. But every so often if he's been up extremely late the night before (like, at a sleepover) or he's obviously exhausted, I'll send him to his room and tell him he has to lay down for half an hour and then I'll come check on him. If he's awake after 30 minutes, he can get up, but I can tell you that it never happens that way. Generally after 10 minutes he's asleep. However that doesn't even happen often--maybe once every few months.

If it were me, I'd drop the nap altogether. If he's in a room destroying stuff, he's obviously not sleeping or even on the path to sleeping. I can understand a necessary "quiet" time during the day, but since you all ready know that leaving him in a room unattended is only going to result in destruction, I would move him out of his room, into a public place, and encourage activities that work the brain. He could quietly play with Legos (which are pretty tough to destroy), Lincoln logs (my son LOVES his!), work puzzles, read, a destructo-bin (my son loves to take stuff apart just to see how it works. So make a bin that has stuff in it that is ok for him to take apart. Old electronics, for example. Trust me, a 7-year-old can handle a screwdriver).

Also, and this might not be a popular sentiment, but if he's not involved in some kind of physical activity every day, he needs to be. I'm not saying you need to sign him up for soccer or football or anything at all like that, but it really sounds like he could use the opportunity to really work off some energy. All kids are big balls of energy that needs to be expended in some physical way. I was reading an article a few weeks ago (which, God help me, I can't find now) that suggests that children's body and spatial awareness have declined significantly over the past 30 years or so because children simply aren't spending time outdoors. I want to say that the study recommended that children have something like 5 hours of unrestrained outdoor play a day--a difficult task for my family to fulfill, but 30 or 40 years ago would have been entirely do-able. Anyway, so children are less coordinated and less aware of their bodies in space. My point to this is that, besides wearing him out, getting him physically active has other benefits.

I've found, recently, that punishing my son for stuff is counterproductive and winds up with both of us being miserable, and I've just accepted that, for me, I'd rather encourage positive behavior when I can. Your son is 7. He knows that tearing up mattresses and pillows or books is unacceptable, but he does it anyway. I would sit down and talk to him about it. The conversation might go something like this: Dad: So, we need to talk about your destroying things when mommy and I aren't around. You know that's naughty--right? Son: Yeah (or maybe he'll say no. But let's pretend that he says yes.) Dad: And you know it makes mom and I really sad when we see that you've torn up a book that we know you really like or drawn on the walls of your room (or insert whatever most egregious thing he's done most recently might be). Son: Yeah... Dad: And you understand that it's important that you have some kind of quiet time during the day. So sister can nap and mommy can empty the dishwasher and refill it again--right? Son: Yeah... Dad: You're a big boy and mommy and I need to trust that we can leave you alone in a room for a little while and you won't destroy it while we're away. That's a big responsibility, but we know that you can do it. So instead of taking things away when you destroy them, we're going to make a chart and every time you are left alone for a little while without destroying stuff you get a sticker. And when you get 10 stickers, we'll do something special (insert whatever special thing you think he would like or have him help you decide what it is).

And let the conversation go from there. He might say No, he doesn't understand that it's naughty and that's the window to have a more in-depth discussion with him about it. If he does understand that it's naughty, then you can move forward from there to correct the issue. You could ask him why he does it, but I'm going to ask that his answer will be "I don't know" which I've decided is kid lingo for "I was bored and just wanted something to do". Although, he could say "The zombies in my closet told me to do it."

In the meantime, you do have to provide him with something to do during that quiet time that he's unsupervised until he can be trusted to be left alone with nothing to do and make a good decision about what to do with his time.

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One of the reasons for needed reduced sleep and excessive boredom could be failure to find proper challenges during the day. Valkyrie mentioned wearing him out before bedtime (I'm not really a fan of sports for a number of reasons, but this is exactly what they are for), but both physical and mental exhausting can be effective. Some things I would try:

  1. Bed time stories. But pick books (or improvise) with serious content, complexities, compelling character and depth. I've seen fantastic results from doing Tolkien before bed - it's a lot to think about, a fun read for parents to, and provides a great opportunity for moral instruction or discussion.

  2. Minecraft. I'm not really an advocate of this particular game, but I know a number of other parents that have had fantastic results entertaining their children with this great opportunity for creative development. Minecraft with access to Legos has also been highly praised (I'm an enormous Lego advocate myself) but I have some reservations about leaving a tablet or Legos with a potentially destructive child (not that either are particularly easy to break, but nevertheless). Possibly the introduction of either in a controlled setting and then access at nighttime may provide the distraction needed, while potentially having some very positive effects as well.

  3. Teaching calculus before bed. Calculus is great in that, though it doesn't seem to actually be used very much in very many fields, is not exactly how people think but makes a lot of sense. Wrestling with the complexity of abstract mathematics can paralyze minds and, if broken up well, is approachable from a fairly young age (I've heard of beginning calculus at I believe 4 years old and set theory a little bit before that). The research on this method is somewhat lacking at present and I haven't had any experience with it but it may serve as an inspiration for other solutions if nothing else.

  4. Staggered sleep schedules. Obviously this would be a non-trivial commitment, but may be reasonable for short-term training periods (such as introduction of Minecraft or alternative) or as a measure of last resort. Hopefully this is clear:

Assumptions: Parents need 10 hours of sleep. Child needs 8 hours of sleep.

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In general, I would target either complete mental or physical exhaustion at least a half hour or so before bed. A glut of energy should, if possible, be channeled into development of some sort (for which I primarily advocate STEM, though sports is another great example) and barring that, well, good luck!

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could you please elaborate on the acronym "STEM"? I don't know what that means, I'm sure I'm not alone. –  Jax Aug 21 at 23:48
    
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. :) –  Calvin Aug 22 at 15:02

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