Promoting Better Sleep Habits With an Anxious Child
By Laura Arrick, LCSW – May 9, 2022 –
Child: “I can’t shut my brain off.”
Parent: “But you have to get to sleep. Quit stalling. You have school tomorrow, so shut your eyes.”
In households with an anxious child this can be a common bedtime conversation.
There are many forms of anxiety, but one shared characteristic is overwhelming thoughts. These thoughts often start out as rational worries and fears but over time can become irrational and all-consuming. An anxious brain has difficulty letting go and moving on from these thoughts, and nighttime can be one of the most challenging times.
To promote optimal health, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children ages 6 – 12 get 9 – 12 hours of sleep and teenagers ages 13 – 18 get 8 – 10 hours of sleep each night. Following these guidelines on a regular basis leads to improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and improved mental and physical health.
The typical reasons children are not getting enough sleep include phone or computer usage, video games, homework, jobs, extra-curricular activities, etc. These things can usually be managed with some parental guidelines. Anxiety is less obvious and harder for a parent to help with, often leaving both the parent and the child at a loss.
Here are some strategies to think about to help your child manage their anxiety and still get the right amount of sleep each night.
1. Establish a “before bed” routine. Give your child at least 30 minutes before bedtime to wind down. This means turning off all electronics and phones and spending some time getting ready for sleep. It could include reading a book in a quiet room, taking a bath or shower, listening to music in a dim space, or journaling. Work with your child on what this might look like for them. This is a proactive way to set them up for success before they hit the pillow.
2. Have white noise in the room. There are plenty of options that are quiet but effective at drowning out the thoughts in your brain, including a fan, music, sound machine, or an app on your phone.
3. Help children avoid caffeine and snacks before bed. Often the snacks chosen are high in sugar, which does not help the body and mind wind down. Snacks that promote sleep may include bananas, oatmeal, yogurt, cheese with whole grain crackers or bread, or a glass of milk. These all have natural components that promote sleepiness.
4. Have your child keep a journal. Encourage them to spend time reflecting on their day and writing down all the worries and fears they have bottled up. Getting it out of their head and on paper can relieve some of the tension they are carrying to bed.
5. Do something different for a short period of time. If you find they are still struggling after tossing and turning for 30 minutes, let them get up and do something relaxing and calming. They may be swirling those overwhelming thoughts in their head and can’t break the cycle just lying there.
Anxious children can get a good night’s sleep; you just have to find what works for your child. Hopefully some of the suggestions above will help them leave their worries behind before their head hits the pillow