Lights off, Worries on: Tips to help manage your child’s anxiety at night
“Please lie with me”, “What if I stay awake all night”, “What if…”, “One more hug”, “ My tummy is sore”, “ I am scared”, “I heard a noise” , “I will never fall asleep”
Often I see anxiety in young people escalate at night. And unfortunately the child usually starts calling their parent at the very same time as that parent can see the finish line, exhausted from the day’s demands and has a list of things waiting for those precious few moments of alone time. It can be difficult to know what is stalling, manipulation or distress, but it’s important for parents to look at the overall picture of their child. Are there other signs or behaviours during the day, perhaps not as noticeable, but other indicators that your child is experiencing anxiety?
Some of the most common reasons why a child’s anxiety increases at night include that their ability to fend off those worries is now reduced after a full day and often this is the first bit of quiet space all day where those can feelings come out and the act of sleeping, being alone, forces the child to try relax and self-soothe, ie rely on their own skills. What parents usually find out, is that just trying to reassure your child that everything is fine and that there is nothing to worry about, does not work with anxiety.
With these concerns being so common in my practice, here are some tips to try help with those night time worries:
Empathise with them: Even if their worry does not make any sense to you, to them it feels real. Acknowledge that you see how they feel. A possible suggestions to say, “I can see that you feel really worried/scared/afraid right now…” This also helps them identify a word to describe what it is they might be feeling.
Kind firmness: For the parent, it’s a balance between being understanding and patient yet remaining calm and having certain boundaries. For example you can say, “I can see you are feeling nervous, and that is a very hard feeling, but it’s not ok to be screaming at me”
Ask questions about what they are afraid of: Don’t make assumptions, rather try to help them to narrow it down to specifics. This helps the child get a clearer sense of their feelings. You can then help them do some ‘fact-checking’ of their worry to see how anxiety can trick them. For example you can say, “Has this ever happened before?’, or “Do you really think will happen or does the Worry make you think it will?” It is important that the parent remains calm and not held hostage to the anxiety- it shows the child that no matter what the ‘Worry’ might be trying to trick them into thinking, their parents are stronger, and won’t be pulled in. A possible example to say is , “ I know that the Worry is trying to tell you that you won’t ever be able to fall asleep, but the Worry can’t fool me”
Have a daily designated worry time: During the day, before bed time. In this time, they can set the timer (5-15 minutes) where the child can have your full attention (so no distractions or multitasking for parents) to discuss all the things they are worried about.They can even write them down and keep it in a special spot in the house. Once the timer goes off, the worry time is up and they can discuss the ongoing or new concerns in tomorrow’s slot.
Activity: It can be also helpful to end the night with a soothing activity. Some examples include breathing exercises (so many examples you can copy on Youtube), reading a book, listening to some relaxing music, doing some yoga stretches, writing in a journal or a bodyscan (where they squeeze and release different body parts…again, many examples online). Encourage your child to try out different options, even if reluctant, to see if they have a preference. Any activity that calms them provides a few moments respite from the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Switch off: Get them off screens before bed- it is too much stimulation when we are trying to help them settle and calm. I know parents have heard this before and sometimes unavoidable, but its direct effect on anxiety and sleep is often underestimated.
If the anxiety continues, remind them (and yourself) that this feeling will pass, and the only thing that will happen is they will feel tired the next day.
As with all symptoms of anxiety, its important to keep an eye on it. Feelings of anxiety will not disappear instantly, but if there is no improvement after trying different options over several days, and their sleep is really being disrupted, it will be helpful to speak to a professional for a more individualized treatment plan.