Is your child having trouble sleeping? It could be related to anxiety. You know how hard it is for you to get to sleep when you’re worried or jittery, and for your child, it’s no different. Whether it’s a basic bedtime fear or something more, anxiety can keep your kid up at night – keeping you up right along with them and leaving you stressing, “How can I help my anxious child sleep?”
To make the problem even murkier, sometimes anxiety isn’t actually the problem; sleeplessness is. Research shows that lack of sleep or sleep disruptions can contribute to anxiety, so if something else is keeping your kid awake, they may start to become more nervous or tense. Of course, that can make it harder for them to get to sleep, and a vicious cycle beings.
In HelloJoey’s “Anxiety 101,” we look at many of the reasons kids become anxious – including trouble sleeping – and explore the relationship between anxiety and sleep. We also talk with the experts and share strategies for managing your child’s anxiety, no matter what the cause, so your family can all sleep a little easier.
How does sleep affect anxiety?
If your child can’t sleep, anxiety could be the cause – but the reverse could be true as well. Researchers know there’s a connection between sleep and anxiety, but they’re still figuring out which comes first. “Sleep and anxiety are closely correlated,” says child psychiatrist Dr. David Hong. “Sleep problems affect millions, including adolescents and children, so a big proportion of them will also have anxiety issues. It is often difficult to say which is the chicken and the egg.”
If your child has anxiety, it’s worth looking at their sleep patterns to see if they’re getting enough rest. Dr. Hong says signs your child isn’t sleeping well may include:
fatigue and sleepiness during the daytime
irritability, feeling sad, or moodiness
behavioral problems or hyperactivity
“It's a broad range,” shares Dr. Hong. “If kids need parents to come in four times to get them out of bed in the morning, that is a sign of sleep deficit for most kids. Younger kids may not be able to identify that feeling of tiredness, so it might come out as mood or behavioral symptoms. Also, kids may respond to having inadequate sleep by seeming over-activated or hyperactive.”
Getting better sleep may or may not improve your child’s anxiety issues, but the benefits of a good night’s rest extend far and wide. To learn more about those benefits and how to help your entire family sleep well, check out HelloJoey’s “Sweet Dreams: Real Talk about Sleep” (ages 0-2) or “Pillow Fights: Striving for Successful Sleep” (ages 3-12).
How to deal with bedtime fears
Of course, your child’s sleep issues could be caused by good old fashioned bedtime fears, like being afraid of the dark. There also are other nighttime worries that keep kids up at night – ranging from stranger anxiety for babies to the pressures of puberty for tweens.
Little kids can be especially prone to separation anxiety at bedtime – alone in a dark room by themselves all night long. You can help by reminding them you’ll see them in the morning and offering a rundown on what will happen the next day to give them some certainty and security.
As kids grow, their bedtime fears grow right along with them. Kids who understand more about the world and have richer imaginations may develop fears of ghosts or monsters – the same way they believe in the Tooth Fairy. To figure out what’s spooking them, lie in their bed at night to look for ominous shadows or listen for scary sounds. A noise machine or nightlight may help.
Older kids often develop real-world anxieties just like adults, stressing about tests or bullies at school. Not being able to turn off their brains can keep them tossing and turning, but a consistent bedtime routine can help. As they wind down for sleep, include time for them to share their worries with you. It can clear their mind and help them feel calm enough to sleep.
Helping kids handle anxiety
While it’s normal for parents to shield their kids from their own worries and concerns, talking about your anxiety can help your kid learn to deal with their own. As psychologist Dr. Neha Navsaria explains, “For a parent, there's that fear that if I talk about anxiety, my child's going to pick up on that. So, nobody talks about worries – but then a child doesn't know how to manage those worries because nobody in the family is talking about it.”
Instead, she suggests talking through stressful situations with your kids in appropriate ways. “I encourage parents to explain anxiety to their kids and narrate their own process.” She says it could be as simple as sharing your concern about a schedule change – and then explaining how you handle it. “I'm worried because they canceled your practice, but they haven't told us when it's going to be, and I have to plan other things. I guess I'll just have to wait. If they don't email me by this time, then I might reach out to them.”
Dr. Navsaria says that modeling how you deal with uncertainty and handle those stressful situations teaches your child how to do the same. “A child hears that you're still thinking these things, but you're also able to go cook dinner, and you're not letting these worries distract you for the rest of the day.”
Whether sleeplessness is contributing to your child’s anxiety or anxiety is contributing to your child’s sleeplessness, Dr. Tovah Klein says that setting boundaries can help your kid feel safe and create long-term benefits. “All children really need some limits,” she encourages.
That means when bedtime rolls around, sticking with your routine is your best bet – even if your child begs for one more book or asks you to stay by their bed a little longer. Kids can get confused when the boundaries aren’t consistent, and when they don’t know what to expect, they may start to feel more anxious. Following your normal routine can reduce that stress, which may make it easier for your child to settle down and settle off to dreamland.
Want to learn more about “Anxiety 101?” Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.