Helping Your Anxious Child Establish Good Sleep Habits

One in four American adults experience insomnia at any given time, but it’s safe to say that all of us have experienced a sleepless night at least once or twice in our lives, even if sleep usually comes easy. Do you remember the last time you had trouble drifting off? How you tossed and turned, fretted, and eventually got up for some warm milk and a dull book? At some point, you probably checked the clock, calculated how much sleep you’d get if you could conk out right now, and became even more wide awake thanks to the worry and panic that ensued.

Now, imagine your child going through this difficulty.

Plenty of kids resist going to bed, but it’s often because they just don’t want to miss out on the excitement of life. It can also be incredibly scary to go to bed. Children with anxiety might be even more reluctant than their peers to turn in, thanks to the trouble they have falling and staying asleep — and the effect this problem has on their mental state. The negative emotions of fear, apprehension, frustration, anger, helplessness, and maybe even guilt, can loom large in the wee hours and create a cycle of sleep deprivation and anxiety that is hard to escape.

When we can’t drop off, us grown-ups can pop a Benadryl or ask our doctor for something a little stronger. Worst case scenario, a shot of whiskey or glass of wine will usually do the trick (although research shows that alcohol actually causes us to sleep poorly, so that’s not the best way to go curing insomnia). Such recourse isn’t available to our kids, of course. That’s why we’ve compiled some tips and tricks for helping your anxious offspring get the ZZZs they need.

Establish a Routine

If your child doesn’t yet have a consistent bedtime routine, now is the time to establish one. Have her do the same activities in the same order each night. These might include taking a bath, brushing teeth, reading (or being read to) for 20-30 minutes, turning on some white noise, then turning out the light. Kids thrive on routines, and after a while, their body will respond to these cues that bedtime has arrived.

Try Some Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is such a hot topic these days that we can sometimes forget it’s an ancient practice. Meditation has stuck around for so long — and is currently being studied to such a great extent — because it’s effective. Not only does it work in the moment to slow your heart rate and help you relax, but people who practice meditation regularly report better outcomes in just about every aspect of their physical and mental health.

Sit with your child and try a meditation together. You can use one of the popular apps or YouTube videos if you want a guided experience or need a nudge to clear your mind. Or keep it simple, concentrate on taking deep breaths, and when your mind wanders, return it to your breath. It can also be helpful to introduce your child to the concept “monkey mind.” Just knowing she’s not alone in her struggle to quiet her unruly thoughts can go a long way toward coping with anxiety.

Try Downward Dog

Yoga has much in common with meditation and has even been described as “moving meditation.” That’s largely because of the focus many yogis place on marrying the breath with the body’s movement, as well as on the different types of controlled breathing that yoga uses.

Again, YouTube is a great resource for free yoga practices. Find one that’s geared toward kids and/or aimed at achieving relaxation. It doesn’t have to be an hour-long session, either; five or 10 minutes of gentle stretching and deep breathing before climbing into bed can be remarkably effective. 

Give the Bed a Makeover

How comfortable is your child’s bed? We’re not suggesting that a new pillow or cozy comforter will cure her anxiety, but creating an ideal environment for sleep will stack the deck in her favor. Do some research into the best place to buy a mattress online, then build on that foundation to create a soothing, comfortable and comforting place for your child to lay her head.

Weighted blankets are becoming increasingly popular with sufferers of anxiety and depression. They deliver something called deep pressure touch, which can in turn help to calm the nervous system.

Explore Some Essential Oils

Proponents of essential oils swear by the calming properties of vetiver, valerian, ylang ylang, and sweet basil, and many others used to alleviate anxiety and stress. There are several ways to incorporate essential oils into your child’s bedtime routine: dilute them with a carrier oil and dab a drop on her pulse points, spritz her pillow with a blend of essential oils and distilled water, or get a diffuser, which will perfume the room with whatever pleasant, soothing scent you choose.

Encourage Her to Journal

The anxious child tends to keep a lot of her anxiety to herself. It’s always a good idea to encourage her to open up, either to you or another trusted adult, but sometimes a child with anxiety can also feel shy, worried about what others will think, or afraid no one will understand. That’s where a journal comes in handy. Give your daughter a blank book and some colored pencils or markers, and assure her that no one else will be privy to what she puts in there. Putting pen to paper, whether it’s by keeping a written diary or expressing herself by drawing, is a super stress-buster. It can help children and adults alike empty their mind and, therefore, get better shut-eye.

At the End of the Day

Sleep is one of our most cherished commodities, and an entire industry has sprung up to address the sleep problems that both children and adults suffer. Although bedtime can be more fraught for young people who are already battling anxiety, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your child is destined to be a sleep-deprived zombie or a chronically poor sleeper. A few interventions early on can help set them up with good sleep habits and provide them with the tools they need to cope with anxiety.