Sleep problems are common among kids who are anxious or who are making a transition to a new school. They might have trouble with falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early or experiencing nightmares, all of which can compound their daytime stress levels. In fact, there’s a two-way street between anxiety and sleep: Kids who don’t get enough sleep or sufficient good-quality sleep are susceptible to developing greater anxiety and depression, and have more trouble adjusting to new circumstances over time. Plus, ongoing sleep problems can take a toll on your child’s performance at school as well as his or her physical and mental health.
The good news is, you can take steps to ease your child’s anxiety during the day and set him or her up for a good night’s sleep. Start with these strategies.
- Talk it out. Putting fears and worries into words can help your child feel like the situation is more manageable. Rather than asking leading questions such as “Are you anxious about school?” which can inadvertently reinforce your child’s nervousness, it’s better to ask open-ended ones such as “How are you feeling about the start of school?” Once specific concerns are revealed, you can reassure your child and together come up with strategies for managing those worries (such as planning to sit next to a best pal at lunch or on the bus). Be sure to time these chats optimally—afternoon is better than right before bed, which could trigger a bout of worrying and keep your child up even later.
- Stick with a schedule. Kids of all ages find routines comforting and reassuring so try to maintain consistent times for homework, chores, sports, meals, and bed. Establish these routines a few weeks before school starts so they become a matter of habit. Also, having a family ritual to look forward to—say, game night every Friday—can help channel a child’s stress into positive anticipation.
- Learn relaxation strategies. These can include deep breathing, visualizing a calm place, doing gentle stretches, or repeating a soothing mantra such as “I can handle this.” Practice together, and encourage your child to use these strategies in the morning, before bed, and on an as-needed basis.
- Establish bedtime rituals. Impose a digital curfew: Have kids power down all electronics, including the TV, an hour or two before bedtime to help their bodies release more sleep-inducing melatonin. (The blue light emitted from electronic devices can delay the release of this hormone.) Use the time to give your child a warm bath or shower, read a pleasant book, listen to gentle music or sounds from nature, play with cuddly stuffed animals, or engage in a calming activity such as coloring.
School stress can be significant and rarely disappears overnight. By using these approaches consistently, you’ll slowly help your child to relax, leading to less daytime anxiety and better sleep over time.