My 6-year-old has been struggling lately.
Every other week, Abby lives with us. The other weeks, she lives with her dad and stepmom.
She’s always had a hard time being away from us for a whole week, but her anxiety seems to be getting worse.
For the last few months, she hasn’t been eating much on Sundays, the day before she switches back to the other house. On Monday mornings – our last morning before she heads to school and a week away from us – she won’t eat anything. We’ve tried pancakes, muffins – anything to get her to just EAT.
And now she’s having a hard time in another area: sleep.
The Bedtime Battle You Don’t Expect
When it’s time to say good night, she gets frantic.
She asks for one more hug, again and again. Tears well up in her eyes. She says she doesn’t want to leave me.
Not just on her last night at our house – every single night.
It’s like she doesn’t trust I’ll be there in the morning when she wakes up.
She had the typical separation anxiety as a toddler, but it got more intense after the divorce.
Then as we settled into a new life with new routines, her separation anxiety went away.
Four years later, it’s back with a vengeance.
Bedtime is now the ultimate struggle.
On top of that, Abby wakes me up several times a night. Nothing I say helps in that moment because she’s an emotional wreck.
8 Ways to Calm an Anxious Child
Neither of us were getting enough sleep. It was time for help.
I researched nighttime anxiety in kids. I scheduled a pediatrician visit and talked to the doctor about what’s going on. I searched for tools to help kids cope with anxiety.
Here are the best tips I found in my research. We started all these last week, and they’re helping SO MUCH already. Abby’s had only one middle-of-the-night wake-up since we started them!
If your child is struggling with separation anxiety or nighttime fears, reading this post will give you the tools to help your child. Even better, your kid will be able to manage her OWN stress when she’s feeling anxious or scared.
1. Name the Bad Feelings
This suggestion came from our doctor, and it’s a common tip for helping children with anxiety.
Get your kid to think up a silly name for the bad feelings they’re having. For example: Bob.
Then tell your kid to boss those bad feelings around.
“Bob, stop making me feel like that!”
Or: “Go away, Bob!”
(I suggested that Abby name her bad feelings “Voldemort.” She decided to stick with “Bob” instead.)
I made the mistake of thinking logic would help. I explained she was safe. I wasn’t going anywhere. Our bodies needed sleep.
But Abby was experiencing real anxiety. Logic didn’t do squat.
In fact, I think it made her anxiety worse.
And then when my logical appeals didn’t help her, I got frustrated, and that REALLY didn’t help.
This is what I did instead: I just stopped talking. I gave lots of hugs and kisses. And listened.
From the experts:
Recognize that the fear is real. As trivial as a fear may seem, it feels real to your child and it’s causing him or her to feel anxious and afraid…Never belittle the fear as a way of forcing your child to overcome it. Saying, “Don’t be ridiculous! There are no monsters in your closet!” may get your child to go to bed, but it won’t make the fear go away.
3. Give Your Kid a Friend
Our doctor also suggested this one.
Let your kid pick a doll or stuffed animal, or even something like a bracelet.
In times of stress, encourage your child to find comfort in this special object. Research shows this helps kids with nighttime fears and sleep problems. Especially in cases of shared custody, the child can find it helpful to have an object they take between both houses that always travels with them.
When Abby was anxious about starting kindergarten, we got matching bracelets, I wrote her a special poem, and it worked like magic.
To help with these new sleep problems, we found a miniature teddy bear from when Abby was a toddler, and she has been sleeping with it at night.
Then on Monday mornings, we pack it in her backpack to take to her other house for the week.
4. Get a Straw and a Button
Seems random, but stick with me.
In one study, teaching kids to blow into a party blower reduced anxiety in 40 percent of the kids who tried it.
But I didn’t have a party blower on hand, so I found a pretty paper straw and a button instead.
Well before bedtime, I showed Abby how to blow through the straw to move the button across her nightstand. This trick forced her to take a big deep breath and let it out slowly. Too fast, and the button would fly off the nightstand.
But what if you don’t have your props around, and your child needs help calming down? Abby absolutely loves the breathing technique from the book What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety, which is a great book to have on hand for an anxious child anyway!
Some parents have also had luck with teaching their kids to blow bubbles when they get stressed out. Check out 10 Ways to Calm an Angry Child for this and other ideas from Jodi at Meaningful Mama.
5. Make a Photo Album
When Abby is feeling upset, it helps her to look at pictures of her baby sister. How can you feel anxious when you’re looking at such cuteness?
Because I’m not very crafty, I just loaded up the iPad with a bunch of family photos. Abby can flip through the album as much as she wants.
But if you think your kid would benefit from a physical photo book, check out this super helpful tutorial for how to make a simple DIY photo book. Allison at No Time for Flash Cards wrote it so well, I think even I could manage it!
6. Record Yourself
I downloaded an app to our iPad called Super Notes. You can use this app to take notes or record voice notes.
When the kids were distracted, I took the iPad into my bedroom, closed the door, and sat down to record a message for Abby.
This is what I said:
“You are safe. I love you. I can’t wait to see you in the morning, but right now your body needs some sleep. Breathe in until your belly feels full, then blow it out slowly. Feel your body sink deeper into the bed. Try that two more times. If you still can’t sleep, use the other tricks we practiced. I love you.”
In the middle of the night, Abby can replay the recording.
One morning, she told me she ended up playing it five times in a row!
7. Make a Calm-Down Jar
I’ve mentioned this before in How to Handle Your Kid’s Temper Tantrums Like a Ninja Badass.
But in the middle of the night, it wouldn’t have helped Abby go back to sleep if she had to turn on bright lights in order to use a calm-down jar.
Which is why I absolutely love this glowing bedtime bottle!
After you make a calm-down jar for bedtime, teach your child to shake the bottle and then count as many stars as possible as they float back down to the bottom.
Here’s another great idea: a LEGO calm-down jar. Perfect for LEGO fans!
8. Build a Toolbox
After you read through these tips to see what will be a good fit for your kid, review those ideas with your kid to make sure they understand all the tools.
Practice each one.
Then in the moment where they’re feeling anxious or scared, they’ll be confident and prepared to use their toolbox.
If you like the idea of putting together a physical toolkit, check out Create Your Own Anti-Anxiety Kit for Children. Sharla at The Chaos and the Clutter has put together an AMAZING resource with a ton more ideas for how you can help your kid cope with anxiety.
Check out A Quick Fix for When Your Child Feels Separation Anxiety. For more tried-and-true parenting tricks, follow my Pinterest board Playful Parenting.
When your kid is stressed out or anxious, what helps them? Share your tip in a comment below!