Anxiety is the enemy of sleep for small children, teens, and adults alike. However, helping a young child cope with anxiety, especially at bedtime, can be a unique challenge for parents, who desperately want to calm their child and help him sleep. Eventually, even bedtime itself can be a trigger for anxiety.
Anxiety around bedtime in toddlers and young children can present in a variety of ways: an unexplained tantrum, a sudden burst of energy or begging frantically or with panic to stay up for a few more minutes, clinging to mom or dad, weeping, or refusal to stay in his or her room, and nightmares. Of course, a child simply doing one or more of these things does not mean immediately that she has anxiety, but a pattern of these behaviors can at least alert parents that something is going on.
If you believe that your child is experiencing anxiety around bedtime, there are things you can do to help him overcome these feelings and learn some tools to cope with it. Your aim should be to comfort your child while at the same time empowering her. Acquiescing to every request in hopes of helping allay your child’s anxiety actually gives power to her fears instead to her. Also, most pleas are intended to delay bedtime, which only delays the onset of anxiety for a time when your child will be even more tired. So, before you allow another half-hour of play time, consider some of these options.
Pay attention to stimuli: Most children with anxiety are also extremely sensitive to stimulus, especially when they are tired. Pay close attention to the activities your child is involved in during the hour before bed. Are games rowdy or violent? Are there video games or videos on that “amp” up your child? Try to adjust this hour so that it is a little more quiet. Model this for your child and slowly “build down to bedtime.”
Look at the big picture: Look at new things in your child’s environment. Even things that seem to be innocuous can trigger anxiety. Change—even good change—from predictability and stability can be a hard thing to adapt to and it can manifest as bedtime anxiety or enhanced fears. Has your child seen a new movie? Did a friend move away? Is he starting at a new school? Did you have company for a week that disrupted the routine? Take into account any changes and talk them through with your child, then reinforce the stable routine by sticking to it for a couple of weeks and keeping things mellow at home. For older children, sometimes walking through the anxiety trigger (the first day of school, moving to a new house), even repeatedly, can be a source of comfort.
The walls have ears: Be sure that topics of conversation between you and your spouse are not rife with stress or anger. While it may be the first time you’ve had a chance to talk all day, try to save the deeply serious conversations for after the kids are in bed. Toddlers and young children are especially sensitive to vocal inflections; even if they don’t understand the words, they can sense stress, frustration, and anger. In the evening, they need to feel rooted in safety and love and that stems from their parents. Keep in mind that they also don’t have the capacity to understand sarcasm yet, so be careful with that one as well.
Create an anxiety-blasting bedtime routine: For anxious kids, routine is especially important. It grounds them in something predictable and helps them calm their inner nerves. Try to incorporate relaxing elements into the routine, like a warm bath, baby massage with warm lavender lotion, or some breathing exercises (see below). Don’t move too quickly from dinner to bedtime; leave some space for your child to process that it is, in fact, time to end the day. Take your time with the routine and try to be as calm and relaxed as you can through its duration.
Talk about it in the daylight: Rather than try to have a successful conversation about your child’s anxieties right before bed when he’s probably already anxious and too tired for logic to work, try talking during the daytime when there is no imminent threat of those anxieties rearing up, when they don’t have as much power, and when the two of you can think about ideas for coping together. This will ensure your child feels that he is supported by you, but also that he has a role in figuring out how to feel better. If nightmares or fear of the dark is a major issue, daytime is a perfect time to think of solutions together. Don’t belittle your child’s experience, but also don’t give it more power than it already has.
Be sure she’s not overtired: Sometimes, new nightmares, fears, or anxieties can surface when a child is overtired. They’ve lost the natural coping skills to self-soothe when these emotions are triggered due to exhaustion. The only way to combat this is to help her eliminate her sleep debt. An extra early bedtime for a few nights, protecting naps during the day, and providing some quiet time each afternoon will help her get back on track and on top of her anxieties.
Yoga, Meditation, and Breathing Exercises: While health experts taut the benefits of all of these things for adults, they are also extremely helpful for kids. Besides, what better tools to arm children with than tools of mindfulness at a young age? Of course, the older your child, the easier it will be to explain what each of these is, but you can easily start small when your child is young.
Yoga: Using a few poses, like child’s pose, sun salutations, downward facing dog and upward facing dog, you can help your child learn balance and stretching. Take it up a notch by having her take a breath or two while holding each pose. There are several fun YouTube channels for Yoga For Kids. Try a few and see what your child likes. You might be surprised at how well their flexible little bodies can move into poses!
Meditation: for young toddlers, this might be something as simple as having your child sit on your lap with you in a dim room while you tell a story to “guide” her imagination to a calm place. For young children, having them pay attention to their breath and their heartbeat, asking them to visualize a clearing of their mind might be a little easier. Christiane Kerr, leading children’s meditation teacher and former Montessori teacher, also has several guided meditations for children on iTunes.
Breathing exercises: Children are the best mimickers. If your child is calm and in your arms or in her bed, you can ask her to take a deep breath with you. You might have to model it first. When you do, breath in deeply through your nose, have your child feel your chest or your belly to see how full it is, then release the air through your mouth. This also works if your child is easily frustrated in the day: sit down with them and instead of scolding, say, “We need to take some breaths.” It can reset whatever emotions can be triggered by frustration and set you and your child on a path to problem solving.
*See the bottom of this post for more resources on yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises.
Talk to your pediatrician: If you believe your child is experiencing anxiety not only around bedtime but also throughout the day, it’s probably best to talk to your pediatrician about what you are seeing. Sometimes, what triggers the anxiety might be something you are totally unaware of and your pediatrician or other healthcare professional can help you zero in on what it is, and how you can cope with it. Also, if anxiety seems much more chronic and constant, there may be other issues at play. It’s never a bad idea to get the opinion of your child’s doctor.
If anxiety is influencing bedtime for your child, it’s so important to approach it with extra patience. You never want to send the message to your child that his anxiety is something that is “wrong” with him. Walk through it with him, show him how strong he is, and arm him with tools to combat very difficult feelings. And, as always, if you feel like you need a little extra help contact me anytime!