4 Practices To Help Your Anxious Child Sleep

Updated: May 3, 2020

Image by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

When I was a kid I struggled with anxiety pretty bad. I was bounced around a lot between family members and struggled to feel stable even with my essential needs (roof, food, warm bed, caregivers) met in abundance. The struggle was particularly seen when it came to bed-time. It took me hours to fall asleep, often reappearing in the living room to stall the process. I would sleep walk, wake up on the floor, and wet the bed. I had frequent and reoccurring nightmares, and I was considered a hand-full by my caregivers, which added shame to the struggle.

Over the years I spent hours in bed creating ways to entertain myself until I could fall asleep. I developed some go-to techniques that I later learned, once on my yoga path, are actual relaxation and grounding tools taught around the world. I don't claim to be an expert with children or even in therapy, but I was once in those shoes and I want to share what helped me through then… and even today.

Body Scan: "Hey toes, it's time for bed."

I would sing in bed, which drove my family nuts. So, I had to shift my focus to quiet games where I could channel that energy. I struggled with stillness, so I began focusing on each part of my body and asking it to relax and go to sleep. I would acknowledge each toe and work my way all the way up to the head. This mindful technique is formally called a "Body Scan". Each time I would do the scan, it became easier and easier to visualize and connect with that body part. Eventually, I would consistently fall asleep before I completed the whole body. This is a great mindfulness technique for anyone to use in getting out of your head and grounding into the body.

Here is a Body Scan Script for Kids from the website Mindful you can use to help guide your child through this exercise.

BONUS: Child Relaxation Script from University of Washington that includes body scan. This is not for bedtime, and is focused on calming your child when they are angry, sad, or scared.

Visualization Adventures: Let's go to your happy place

As an only child it was up to me to entertain myself a lot of the time. I only had one cousin, and some years I spent whole summers not really interacting with other kids in-person. Let's just say I got really good at imagination play. That imagination would often manifest my real life anxieties and fears into monsters and ghosts. Monsters under the bed, boogie man in the closet, ghosts walking through walls, etc. I was terrified of the dark well into adulthood. I needed to channel that creativity into positive imagery of a "happy place" where I wasn't scared of the shadows.

In this exercise, invite your child to go on a journey within themselves. You will guide them with prompts, but allow them to create anything they want here. Kids are able to more easily connect with the world from a boundless creativity as they do not yet hold many limiting filters created from societal belief systems.

Maybe they are searching for the treasure within themselves. Depending on what they are struggling with specifically, you can help them visualize a "happy place" where they build it out in great detail (a room, a garden, a rainbow castle, anything) all of their favorite people, animals, and things are there. Ask them what it smells like, what do they see, how do they feel? Once they have that clear imagery, invite them to hold onto this place, and come back to it whenever they feel scared, overwhelmed, or sad.

Below are two scripts to get you started with this practice. Read it aloud to your child in a calm, slow, and soothing tone. The goal is to wind them down so don't be too animated.

Peaceful Butterfly Visualization from Green Child Magazine.

Sleepy Train Visualization from Mindfulness Exercises.

Breath Focus

Sometimes I would focus on taking deep breaths and then following the cycle. I would bring both hands to my belly and notice my belly expand on the inhale until I couldn't take in anymore air. On the exhale, I tried to be as slow as I could letting the air leave through the nose, feeling the belly lower along the way. This action allows for grounding into the body’s physical experience, moving the focus away from whatever is on the mind causing anxiety.

If your child has a history of hyperventilating when anxious, I would encourage them to focus on a slow exhale and allow the inhale to be whatever is normal for them. Being too controlling of their breathing process when actively experiencing high anxiety could trigger hyperventilation; so use your discernment on whether this would be beneficial for your child.

BONUS: Good Night Yoga: An Interactive Bedtime Story

I wish this was around when I was a kid. I may have found my Yoga practice 20 years sooner. Good Night Yoga by Mariam Gates is a beautiful children's book that guides little ones through gentle poses with playful names like, "cat", "lady bug" and "crescent moon". It offers calming movement that will help your child unwind and prepare for bed.

Here is a super soothing video recorded reading that includes visuals from the book itself.

May you and your child be happy.

May you and your child be safe.

May you and your child be healthy.

May you and your child live with peace of mind and heart.

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