5 Tips for Helping Kids Cope with Nighttime Anxiety

Image courtesy Katie Hurley
Image courtesy Katie Hurley

Nighttime fears and anxiety are common among young children.  In fact, a study of Australian children reported that over 64% of kids admitted to experiencing nighttime anxieties (Gordon et al, 2007).

Simply telling a child to “relax” or “go to sleep” doesn’t help counteract the anxious thoughts keeping that child awake.  Many children lack the necessary skills to cope with anxiety independently.

Even with a calming bedtime routine in place, many children struggle to fall asleep independently, even during the elementary school years.  While this can be a source of frustration for tired parents, it’s important to remember that anxiety can be very overwhelming, and it can trigger both physical and emotional reactions in young children.

Simply telling a child to “relax” or “go to sleep” doesn’t help counteract the anxious thoughts keeping that child awake.  Many children lack the necessary skills to cope with anxiety independently.  We need to teach them how to relax and how to cope with intrusive thoughts. 

Common triggers of nighttime anxiety include:

  • Fear of intruders
  • Fear of monsters
  • Unexplained sounds
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Separation anxiety
  • Fear of darkness
  • Daytime stress

The amygdala, the brain region that processes emotional events, becomes overactive at night (when kids are exhausted).  It comes as no surprise that daytime stress and negative emotions tend to emerge when the amygdala goes into overdrive.

Tips for helping kids cope with nighttime anxiety:

 

Image via Flickr/
Image via Flickr/sera_leaving

1. Be present:

You’ve probably heard that it’s best to set firm limits and let kids work this stuff out independently so that they don’t manipulate bedtime.  You might have even read somewhere that kids will wear themselves out eventually and fall asleep.  Have you ever experienced anxiety so pervasive that it makes you tense all of your muscles and curl up into a ball … alone in the dark?

Be supportive, remain calm, and help your child through her nighttime anxiety.  As frustrating and exhausting as it might be for you along the way, providing emotional support and physical comfort shows your child that she is not alone. 

Factor in extra time with that child at night so that you can cuddle with her for ½ an hour as she settles down.  Be honest about the plan.  Promising to stay all night and then sneaking out when she falls asleep will trigger panic and fear should she wake up at some point during the night (as many children do).  Work on a plan together so that your child feels safe and secure at night.

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Image via iStock
Image via iStock

2. Discuss worries by day:

As previously mentioned, worries and daytime stress tend to come out when kids are fighting exhaustion and the lights go out.  Factor in time during the day to discuss sources of stress and worry.

Consider creating a worry box or jar together to get the worries out each day and keep them in a safe place.  

{ MORE: 4 Benefits of Infant Massage }

Image courtesy Nicole Hempeck
Image courtesy Nicole Hempeck

3. Find a comfort object:

There’s a reason many children hold comfort objects such as blankets and small stuffed animals close:  These comfort objects help relieve tension and anxiety.  They provided added security at night or during times of stress.

While some children develop attachments to comfort objects at an early age (even during infancy), it’s never too late to find a comfort object.  When my daughter had difficulty falling asleep while my husband was traveling for a year, sleeping with one of my old sweatshirts helped her feel secure.  Talk about it with your child.  Find a comfort object that works for her.

Image via Flickr/photoverulam
Image via Flickr/photoverulam

4. Empathize:

Some kids worry more than others, but the truth is that everyone worries at times.  People get scared – it’s perfectly normal and part of growing up.  Tell your child this.

Many kids feel alone in their worries and anxiety, and try to keep it hidden (even from parents).  Empathize with your child.  Share your own times of childhood worry (minus the details) and what helped you cope.  

{ MORE: Should You Hire a Sleep Coach? }

Image via Flickr/jurvetson
Image via Flickr/jurvetson

5. Guided visualization:

The best way to decrease intrusive thoughts is to combat them with positive visualization and happy thoughts.

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Take your child on a relaxing story adventure each night.  Have her choose the destination and slowly weave a relaxing tale full of positive (and soothing) imagery.  5-7 minutes is the perfect amount of time to tell a story that inspires positive visualization as your child drifts off to sleep.

{ MORE: 3 Ways to Stop Rushing Your Kids Through Childhood }

Does your child have nighttime anxiety? What have you found to most effective in helping them through their fears? 

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5 Tips for Helping Kids Cope with Nighttime Anxiety

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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2 comments

  1. Rhebecca says:

    My son Onyx used to have night frights all the time untill we started giving him Camomile Tea every night about an hour before bed

  2. Timothy says:

    for now Meeka seems to be sleeping pretty darn well.. hope she keeps it up… I have night mares for a short time in my youth..

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