How To Support A Sleep-Deprived Friend

Sleep deprivation can have serious consequences, and for many parents getting more rest is simply not an option. We need to look for better ways to be supportive when a parent says that they’re tired.

Exhausted father asleep with son on his lap

If there’s one common thread in the conversations I have with other parents, it’s how exhausted we all are. Every single one of us needs a good nap, and many are racking up more-than-considerable sleep debts.

But despite the fact that chronic sleep deprivation is so common and can have such a profound impact on our health and wellbeing, there’s not a lot of discussion about how to help each other survive it. There are no easy solutions, so we nod in agreement with each other, shrug and say ‘yep it sucks, but what are you gonna do’.

Meanwhile the lack of sleep is depleting the reserves we use to stay afloat, and edging many of us towards our physical, mental and emotional breaking points.

When your kids have a disability there are just so many mountains to climb and battles to fight. These struggles require energy – not just the physical kind but emotional and mental energy too. When your tanks are running on empty and someone asks you how you’re doing, it’s hard to know where to start. Sometimes saying “I’m tired” might be the only signal you have the energy to send.

And nobody really knows what to do with that. The usual response is something like “Who isn’t?” or “Take an Ambien” or “Are you getting enough magnesium?” (seriously Mum, enough with the magnesium already). We’re either offered sympathy or solutions that focus on how to get more sleep and feel less tired.

But that’s not enough.

The consequences of sleep deprivation are too important to just be treated with sympathy, and for many parents getting more rest is simply not an option. Sleep cycle disturbances, midnight medications, seizures, night terrors and early waking are only a handful of reasons why it’s next to impossible for some parents to feel less deprived of sleep.

So we need to look for better ways to be supportive when a parent says that they’re tired, and we need to acknowledge that sometimes I’m tired can be a bat signal that means I’m running out of fight.

In the absence of solutions for getting more sleep, we need to help friends cope with the feeling of being exhausted.

But how do we do that? How do we help our sleep deprived friends to stay afloat?

How to help someone who’s sleep-deprived

Take the wheel

When friends are having a hard time we often give advice about where they should head or what road to take or even which car to drive… when maybe what they need is just for someone to take the wheel for a bit and help them get there. To say hey I’ve got this, let me make one less thing for you to think about today.

So think of stuff you can do to take some of the struggle off their hands. Offer to cook a meal, pick the kids up from school, grab some groceries, hang out a load of laundry, watch the kids, mail a package. Send them this list of ideas for getting some time out, or research respite options in their area.

You might have to suggest something specific rather than asking “What can I do” though, because when you’re exhausted it can be hard to think of what you need help with.

Protect them while they’re down

Being exhausted can leave you exposed and vulnerable. You’re not thinking straight, it’s hard to make decisions, your mood is in the toilet and you’re more likely to get sick. So not only is there nothing left in the tank to help you handle existing problems, you tend to get a whole lot more of them.

This is an area of support that’s often forgotten about. We’re quick to leap to a friend’s side when they’re under attack but tend to be less proactive about keeping difficult things away from their door to begin with. So think about ways that you can protect them from crappy stuff for a while, like not sharing depressing news stories and staying home if you or your kids have a cold.

Help them get their fight back

There’s no getting around the fact that it’s way more fun to talk about bacon and cake than running and lunges. But when sleep is in such short supply, we should also be encouraging each other to do the things that replenish our reserves. And yes, that includes spending less time on Facebook.

Offer unconditional support and tell them you still like them even though they’re tired and cranky and haven’t brushed their hair in a week (I actually like my friends better this way). Share things that make you laugh. Pump them up a little by remembering past successes and how much progress they’ve made.

Don’t make it a competition

When you’re having a tough time it can be hard to muster the energy to care about someone else’s problems. It’s really easy to fall into the comparison trap and this is especially true with sleep deprivation, when every hour more sleep that someone else is getting is like a dagger in your soul.

We all have our own coping thresholds though and being at breaking point feels the same to everyone, no matter where that point might be. It sucks, and it’s difficult to bounce back on your own.

So don’t hold back support for someone just because their situation seems less dire than yours. Don’t judge the things that feel like a fight to them, the fact that they need help or the way they go about asking for it.

Talk about it

Don’t let the conversation end at “I’m tired”. Acknowledge that it’s a problem, and not something that they have to just put up with or tackle alone. Let them know that you’re struggling too, and share what works for you. And don’t forget to check in with them regularly.

The bottom line

Sleep deprivation is a problem that affects a lot of special needs parents over an extended period of time, even many years or even decades. It’s important that we talk about ways to help each other through that, especially when getting more sleep isn’t a viable option.

Because it’s not okay that we’re all so exhausted, and we shouldn’t let it be treated like it’s a trivial or inevitable part of parenting that we just have to put up with.

Last updated 29 Nov, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.