In the storybooks, childhood is a stress-free period of our lives. There are no looming bills, problems at work or expensive car repairs to worry about.
Playing with friends and creating vast imaginary lands in the living room is the order of the day. And later, some hopeful negotiations with parents for a later bedtime, with fingers and toes crossed.
Children’s sources of stress
As adults, we sometimes forget that childhood can be stressful at times. At this stage of our lives, we’re still not 100% sure what’s possible and what isn’t.
Abstract reasoning skills traditionally develop between 11-16 years old (hence why the monsters under the bed usually move house by mid-adolescence.)
In reality, children are just as stressed and anxious as we are. But they have the added challenge of not necessarily understanding that their fears are sometimes based on imagined dangers, no matter how real they might seem.
In addition to monsters and other creepy creatures, children face the stress and anxiety of school, academically and socially.
And of course, evolving relationships with family, friends and peers that can feel complicated and overwhelming as a child moves into adolescence.
Cortisol Vs. melatonin: how stress interferes with sleep
Sleep is arguably our built-in reset button; it’s a soothing balm at the end of a busy, tiring day. As night time approaches, we transition to a more restful state. The sleep hormone melatonin in our brains is naturally emitted and the urge to sleep gradually drifts in.
When stress is a part of the landscape, sleep can suffer significantly. And children aren’t immune to this phenomenon.
Stress hormones such as cortisol put us into an arousal state that’s sometimes difficult to escape from, and can prevent us from accessing our much-needed sleep.
Furthermore, research shows that a lack of sleep in itself can also lead to an increase in cortisol levels, creating a vicious cycle of stress and insomnia.
Tips for children dealing with stress and insomnia
If you feel stressed or anxious during the day and at night, and struggle to sleep, here are some techniques that might help you relax before bed:
- Avoid reading or watching scary things before bedtime. Find positive, funny or relaxing things to do instead.
- Talk to a family member or friend about your sleep problems, stress and what’s on your mind.
- Ask for a night light if you’re scared of the dark, or sometimes see things that aren’t there at night.
- Write your thoughts and feelings in a journal. Also write about positive things that happened that day or recently, and things you’re thankful for.
- Try to imagine yourself in a safe, relaxing place in your mind. Then do some breathing exercises – breathe in slowly and breathe out slowly. Focus on your breathing while you explore the relaxing place in you mind.
- Slowly focus on each set of muscles in your body and relax them one by one.
- Try to stick to a routine before bed. It’s good to go to bed at the same time each night, and also to do the same things before bed. Perhaps read a book while having a warm drink just before you go to bed.
- Make time during your day to be creative: draw, paint, sing, whatever you feel will help you express yourself and reduce stress.
Advice for parents
In helping children manage insomnia, again there some effective techniques to reduce stress and preparing both mind and body for the sleep process.
- Listen.Encourage your child to share thoughts and feelings about their life. Mostly, just listen. Offer reassurance and advice if the occasion suggests it.
- Encourage self expression/writing. Prior to bedtime, encourage your child to write in a journal. Create alternating pages of stressors and gratitude lists, to ensure that your child is identifying the positive aspects of their life and not focusing solely on their stress.
- Help with visualization techniques. There are many free guided visualization recordings online, or you can develop your own. Don’t get too hung up on wording, just keep it simple. Encourage them to think of a relaxing place; perhaps there’s a favorite spot your child enjoys visiting, or maybe they’d like to envision floating on a soft cloud.
- Talk them through progressive muscle relaxation. Encourage your child to lie down in bed and close their eyes. Starting at the top of the head and working toward the toes, ask your child to focus on relaxing each area of their body, one section at a time. It may help to get quite specific, such as focusing on relaxing facial muscles, cheeks, jaw and forehead.
- Practice breathing techniques together. The use of 4-4-4 breathing can be a beneficial technique and is simple to remember. Breathe IN for a count of four; HOLD the breath for a count of four and then EXHALE the breath for a count of four. This technique regulates breathing patterns, and focusing on the numbers can be a good diversion from stressful thoughts and feelings.
- Explore dream journaling: If your child is having nightmares, this is naturally a source of distress that may result in avoidance of sleep. Explore the sources of these dreams and track them for a bit. Identifying themes can be a useful way to find patterns, and identify ways to increase your influence in those domains of your child’s life. Working on and practicing the art of lucid dreaming is an empowering way to encourage your child to take back their dreams.
- Talk to school staff: Your child’s school nurse may also be a good resource, and may have additional insight into what’s going on at school, along with your child’s teachers.
Setting the stage for healthy sleep
Sleep hygiene and routine are important factors in getting good quality sleep. In particular, sticking to a consistent bedtime and pre-bedtime routine can be very helpful.
Our minds respond well to routine and ritual and this is conducive to relaxation, whereas novelty perks us up. Try to stick to the same nightly rituals to keep it somewhat predictable and boring.
Brushing teeth, getting pajamas on and reading time before bed offer an additional layer of familiarity that will help your child to transition into a relaxed state.
Also, no phones, computers and televisions in the bedroom. These devices promote sleeplessness on a variety of levels, from the light they emit to the stimuli they present; neither of which bode well for slumber.
If all else fails
If the advice here doesn’t help, you might consider a professional therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral sleep techniques, such as CBT-I.
Most of us shy away from giving our children medications unless absolutely needed, so the use of sleep meds in children is generally controversial.
However, in severe and chronic insomnia cases, consulting with a trusted physician can help determine whether natural supplements such as melatonin may be useful for your child.
This decision is a difficult one, and one that’s best taken by close talks between you, your child and family doctor.
Children pick up on adults’ energy, even when we don’t necessarily want them to. Try to keep a relaxed perspective regarding your child’s insomnia.
Remember that sleep is a natural part of our healing and regenerating process and eventually it will come. You can use a variety of techniques to create a good habitat for sleep, and our natural processes generally will take care of the rest.
Be patient with yourself and with your child. Simply put, this too shall pass.
Are you reading this because you have trouble sleeping? If so, what is it that you think stops you from sleeping well?
Are you a parent struggling to help your child sleep? Feel free to share your story below.