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How to get an anxious child to relax and sleep

Anxious children often find themselves too worried and distressed to sleep. Anxiety is more common now in younger children than it has ever been. According to the experts, 20 to 30% of school-aged children struggle to get to sleep and stay asleep all night and anxiety is a common cause. When kids don’t sleep, parents don’t sleep and your whole household becomes an overtired, cranky mess.

As parent, we think it is our job to make things better for our children. This is true for most things but when it comes to feelings, sometimes we just need to listen and be a sounding board for your child to express their feelings both negative and positive. Allowing your child a safe space where they can talk about the things that make them anxious, is a great step in relieving the anxiety these worries can cause. In turn this can help them sleep better.

Here are some easy things you can do with your child to help relieve anxiety:

  1. Make some time every night before bed to talk about their day. Having a cuddle on the bed and getting them to talk about whatever is on their mind is a good way to download before sleep. Try to listen and not talk too much. Be clear that you will only be there for 10 minutes or so and stick to that.
  2. If your child can’t sleep at bedtime, allow them to read until they are ready for sleep. Putting them to bed at the same time is important, but giving some leeway around when they go to sleep is okay and makes the child feel like thy have some control.
  3. No screens before bed. We all know that the blue light from screens inhibits the body’s natural release of melatonin which helps a person sleep. So have at least one, but preferably two, hours of no screens before bedtime.
  4. Routine is very important. Kids of all ages love routine. It makes them feel safe and secure. Find a routine that works for your family and stick to it.
  5. Read them a story. Having a bedtime story every night, can help refocus your child’s mind, in a positive way and can help them forget their worries. We all know that reading out loud to children has been shown to improve vocabulary and be beneficial to development.
  6. Stay calm. Children look to their parentsto determine how to react in situations. We’ve all seen a young child trip and fall and then look to their parent to see how to react. If the parent seems concerned, the child cries. Children of all ages pick up on their parent’s emotions and resonate with them. If you are anxious, your child will pick up on that anxiety and experience an increase in his/her own anxiety.  So when you want to reduce your child’s anxiety, you must try and manage your own anxiety. This may mean deliberately slowing down your own speech, taking a few deep breaths to relax and working to ensure that your facial expression conveys that you are calm.
  7. Practice relaxation exercises with your child. Basic relaxation exercises can help your child to reduce their stress and anxiety. This might mean telling your child to take a few slow, deep breaths and you doing it with them so they can match your pace. Or it might mean asking your child to imagine him or herself somewhere relaxing, like the beach or a hammock. Or you can use one of a number of meditations and relaxation apps that are around now for kids. Start by looking at https://www.kinderling.com.au/music/programs/play-and-learn/mindfulness-meditations.

Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.