Unraveling Sleep Anxiety: Helping Kids and Teens Find Peaceful Nights

Photo of Caucasian mom lying next to her daughter in bed watching nervously as her daughter sleeps. Photo could represent how the daughter struggles with sleep anxiety and the need for solution focused brief therapy in Illinois or Florida.

For many kids, bedtime is not a peaceful time but rather a place where sleep anxiety lurks.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, approximately 50-55% of children and adolescents struggle with some type of sleep issue.

It’s important to understand that anxieties during bedtime aren’t just a part of growing up, but rather a real issue that can significantly impact your child’s well-being and quality of life.

My goal in this article is to shed some light on sleep anxiety and offer practical strategies to help ease bedtime worries.

What is Sleep Anxiety in Kids and Teens?

Sleep anxiety in kids and teens, also known as bedtime anxiety or sleep onset anxiety, refers to excessive worry or fear surrounding the idea of going to sleep. It’s a condition where individuals experience heightened anxiety and stress specifically related to bedtime routines and falling asleep.

Kids and teens with sleep anxiety often feel restless and may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep through the night. They may also experience feelings of dread, fear, or worry about the dark, being alone, or potential nightmares. These anxieties can stem from various factors, including separation anxiety, fear of the dark, nightmares, or general anxiety disorders.

Sleep anxiety can significantly impact your child’s quality of life, as it can lead to chronic sleep deprivation and difficulties functioning during the day. It may also contribute to mood disturbances, lack of concentration, and impaired academic or social performance.

Symptoms of Sleep Anxiety in Kids and Teens

Some symptoms of sleep anxiety in kids and teens may include:

  1. Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  2. Frequent nightmares or night terrors
  3. Fear or anxiety related to nighttime or going to bed
  4. Restlessness or tossing and turning in bed
  5. Bedwetting beyond the usual age
  6. Excessive day-time sleepiness
  7. Unexplained physical complaints before bedtime (such as headaches or stomachaches)
  8. Attention or concentration difficulties during the day
  9. Irritability or mood swings due to lack of quality sleep
  10. Avoidance of bedtime or resistance to going to bed.

It’s important to note that these symptoms can vary from child to child. Be sure to consult with your child’s pediatrician for an accurate diagnosis.

Treatment options for sleep anxiety in kids and teens may involve implementing healthy sleep hygiene practices, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, and addressing any underlying anxieties or fears through counseling. In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage anxiety symptoms if necessary.

Strategies for Overcoming Sleep Anxiety in Kids and Teens

Now that we’ve identified the definition and symptoms, let’s take a look at some strategies to help your child overcome sleep anxiety and promote a restful night’s sleep.

Normalize and validate your child’s feelings

First, it’s important to create an open and supportive environment where your child feels comfortable discussing their sleep anxiety.

Validate their concerns and reassure them that many other children’s experience similar feelings, reducing the likelihood of them feeling alone or “abnormal”. Normalize the conversation around sleep anxiety and emphasize that it’s a challenge that can be overcome.

Establish a soothing bedtime routine

Routine provides a sense of stability and security, which can be helpful in overcoming sleep anxiety.

Establishing a consistent bedtime routine is a great start. Encourage activities like reading a book, taking a warm bath, or listening to calming music. Engaging in these activities consistently before bed will signal to the brain that it’s time to wind down and prepare for sleep.

Additional tips for establishing a soothing bedtime routine include:

  • Establish a winding-down period

Start the routine 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. This time should consist of quieter activities that promote relaxation. It can include snuggling up with a blanket or practicing gentle stretching or deep breathing exercises.

  • Encourage quiet and calming activities

Examples include puzzle solving, coloring, or playing with quiet toys. Avoid active or stimulating play close to bedtime.

  • Offer a light snack

A small, light snack can help children feel more relaxed and ready for sleep. Opt for healthier options like a banana, a small bowl of cereal, or a cup of warm milk, which contains tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes sleep.

  • Practice positive affirmations

Before bedtime, have your child think of three positive things that happened during the day or three things they are grateful for. This can help shift their mindset to a more positive and relaxed state before sleep.

  • Provide a comfort item

Many children find comfort in having a special stuffed animal, blanket, or bedtime toy. Allow your child to choose their own comfort item and make it a part of their bedtime routine. This can provide a sense of security and help them feel more relaxed.

Create a peaceful sleep environment

Creating a peaceful sleep environment is especially important when it comes to promoting relaxation and calmness for your child.

Here are some specific strategies:

  • Use soothing scents

Aromatherapy can be a helpful tool for promoting relaxation. Consider using a diffuser with lavender essential oil, known for its calming properties, or use a scented spray on their pillow or bedding.

  • Keep the bedroom clutter-free

Remove any stimulating or distracting items from the bedroom that may prevent your child from falling asleep peacefully. Keep the bedroom tidy and organized to create a calm and peaceful environment.

  • Dim the lights

Use soft, dim lighting in the bedroom to create a soothing atmosphere. Installing blackout curtains or using a nightlight can help regulate your child’s sleep environment and signal to the body that it’s time for rest.

  • Sufficient ventilation

Ensure that the bedroom is well-ventilated, as fresh air can promote better sleep. Open a window, use a fan, or consider using an air purifier to maintain good air quality.

  • Maintain a comfortable temperature

Set the temperature in the bedroom to a comfortable level for sleeping. It’s important to create an environment that is neither too hot nor too cold to promote peaceful sleep.

  • Choose a comfortable mattress and bedding

Invest in a good quality mattress and comfortable bedding to ensure that your child is physically comfortable while sleeping. Consider selecting a pillow and blanket that suit your child’s preferences and provide the right level of support.

  • Reduce noise

Minimize any noise disruptions in your child’s bedroom. Use white noise machines or soft background music to mask any loud or disruptive sounds that could disrupt sleep.

  • Create a cozy and inviting sleep space

Make the bedroom a welcoming and cozy space for your child. Add soft rugs, plush pillows, and comforting decorations to create a warm and inviting atmosphere that promotes relaxation and sleep.

Teach relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques can help your child or teen reduce their anxiety before bedtime. Deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery can work wonders in promoting a state of calm.

Encourage them to practice these techniques regularly, even during the day, to help manage their anxiety levels.

There are several relaxation techniques that kids can do before bed to help them sleep better:

  • Deep breathing

Kids can lie down and take deep breaths, focusing on inhaling and exhaling slowly. This can help relax the body and calm the mind.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation

Kids can tense and relax different muscle groups in their body. They can start with their toes and work their way up to their head, squeezing each muscle group for a few seconds and then releasing the tension.

  • Guided imagery

Kids can imagine a peaceful and calming scene in their minds, such as a beach or a meadow. They can visualize the details of this scene and imagine themselves in a relaxed state.

  • Visualization

Kids can imagine a favorite activity or place that makes them happy and relaxed, such as playing in a park or swimming in a pool. They can imagine the sights, sounds, and feelings associated with this activity.

  • Mindfulness

Kids can practice being present in the moment and focusing on their senses. They can pay attention to the sounds they hear, the sensations they feel, and the thoughts that come and go without judgment.

  • Reading or listening to calming stories

Kids can read or listen to a soothing bedtime story or audio book. This can help distract their minds from any worries or stress and promote relaxation.

  • Yoga or stretching

Kids can do gentle stretching or yoga poses before bed, focusing on slow and deliberate movements. This can help release tension in the body and promote relaxation.

  • Using a weighted blanket or stuffed animal

Weighted blankets or stuffed animals can provide deep pressure stimulation, which can help calm the nervous system and promote a sense of security and relaxation.

Limit screen time before bed

The blue light emitted by screens, such as phones, tablets, and TVs can interfere with the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep.

Encourage your child to disconnect from screens at least an hour before bed. Instead, encourage quieter activities like reading, drawing, or engaging in a calming hobby.

Here are some ways to get your child to limit screen time before bed:

  • Create a screen-free zone

Designate certain areas in the house, such as bedrooms, as screen-free zones to encourage a break from screens before bed.

  • Set a screen curfew

Establish a specific time in the evening when screens are turned off and no more screen time is allowed. This can be enforced by setting timers or using parental control apps.

  • Remove screens from the bedroom

Removing your child’s screens from the bedroom creates a technology-free environment that promotes healthier sleep habits.

  • Communicate and educate

Explain the importance of limiting screen time before bed and the negative impact it can have on sleep quality. Help your child understand the need for a healthy bedtime routine.

  • Lead by example

Be mindful of your own screen habits before bed. If you consistently prioritize screen-free activities in the evening, it sets a positive example for your kids to follow.

  • Offer alternative bedtime activities

Create a list of non-screen activities that your kids can do before bed, such as drawing, journaling, listening to calming music, or practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation.

  • Gradually reduce screen time

If your child is used to having a lot of screen time before bed, start by gradually reducing the amount of time allowed. Set limits and decrease screen time by a few minutes each night until you reach the desired goal.

  • Provide incentives

Offer rewards or incentives for adhering to screen time limits before bed. This could include a small treat, extra reading time, or a special activity they enjoy.

Remember, consistency is key. It may take some time for your child to adjust to the new routine and limits, so be patient and supportive throughout the process.

Address worries and fears

Sometimes, sleep anxiety stems from specific worries or fears. Talk to your child or teen about their concerns and work together to find practical solutions or create a plan to address those fears.

For example, if they are afraid of the dark, consider using a night light or providing them with a comforting object, such as a stuffed animal. Addressing their worries and finding solutions can help alleviate their anxiety and promote a sense of safety.

Encourage physical activity during the day

Regular physical activity has been linked to improved sleep quality. Encourage your child or teenager to engage in physical activities during the day to tire their body and mind, making it easier for them to fall asleep at night.

There are a wide variety of physical activities kids can do during the day to help them sleep better at night, including the following:

  • Outdoor play

Spending time outdoors, especially in natural settings, can have a positive impact on sleep. Activities like playing in the park, going hiking, or participating in nature-based games can contribute to better sleep.

  • Active games

Photo of 5 young kids running in the park with one of the girls holding balloons. Photo could represent the joy and energy the kids feel after sleeping well and no longer worrying about sleep anxiety.Encouraging kids to play active games like tag, hide-and-seek, or relay races can help them burn energy and promote better sleep.

One word of caution, however, make sure they avoid intense exercise too close to bedtime, as it can have a stimulating effect.

  • Sports and martial arts

Enrolling kids in sports or martial arts classes can not only improve their physical fitness but also help them regulate their energy levels and result in better quality sleep.

  • Yoga or stretching

Incorporating gentle yoga or stretching exercises into your child’s routine can promote relaxation and prepare their bodies for a restful sleep.

Seek professional help if needed

If your child or teen’s sleep anxiety persists or becomes severe, consider seeking professional help. A pediatrician or child therapist can provide further guidance and support tailored to their needs. They can help identify any underlying causes or provide additional strategies to manage sleep anxiety effectively.

Sleep anxiety can significantly impact your child’s overall well-being and quality of life. By implementing these strategies and providing a supportive environment, you can help your child overcome sleep anxiety and enjoy a restful night’s sleep. Remember, patience and consistency are key when addressing sleep anxiety, and seeking professional help can be an invaluable resource as well.

Begin Online Therapy for Kids and Teens with Anxiety in Illinois and now Florida.

If your child or teen is struggling with anxiety, including panic attacks, there is hope! Anxiety is highlyPhoto of Caucasian family smiling as they all gather around the laptop looking into the screen. Photo could represent a therapy session with the boy's online solution focused brief therapist in Illinois for anxiety treatment. treatable and online anxiety treatment at Briefly Counseling can help.

Using Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, I help kids and teens reduce their anxiety and build resilience so they can become a happier, more confident version of themselves.

And kids love being able to receive counseling from the comfort and privacy of their own home. Studies have consistently proven that online therapy delivers equal results to in-office counseling.

As an experienced and caring therapist, I love providing counseling for anxiety. To start your child’s counseling journey, call me at 224-236-2296 or email Helena@BrieflyCounseling.com to schedule a FREE 20-minute consultation.

Helena Madsen, MA, LCPC is the founder of Briefly Counseling. I specialize in providing online short-term anxiety treatment for kids and teens ages 7 – 18 as well as Christian counseling.

Whether you’re on the North Shore, in Naperville, Chicago, Champaign, Barrington, Libertyville, Glenview, or downstate Illinois, I can help.

And effective 2024, I am now licensed in Florida! For parents in Jacksonville, Pensacola, Destin, Crestview, Coral Gables, Weston, Parkland, Naples, Marco Island, and Pinecrest, I have immediate openings.

Schedule your appointment or consultation today. I look forward to working with your child to quickly and effectively help them in activating their strengths, resources, and resilience, in order to live with confidence and hope.