These days, parents have a variety of tech and tools to help with bedtime routines. From sound machines and meditation recordings to aromatherapy and story time, these gadgets can help parents with children get their little ones to sleep.
But for some children consumed by worry and anxiety, those options aren’t quite good enough to get to help them get to sleep and stay asleep. Studies show that 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years of age (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety. For those children plagued with concerns about the welfare of themselves and their families, feeling safe and secure can make a big difference.
Our experts put together tips to weave elements of safety and security into your daily nighttime routine as a way to ease causes of bedtime anxiety, so you and your child get the best night’s sleep possible.
Children need to feel safe and secure before going to bed
Lack of sleep causes children to feel cranky, irritable, and can even lead to depression. Sleepless nights can also contribute to physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches. We all want good sleep for our children, so what’s getting in the way?
According to the Alaska Sleep Education Center, there are many sources of anxiety that prevent children from falling or staying asleep. Experts say that many of those symptoms revolve around the child’s developmental stage.
“Toddlers and preschoolers haven’t yet learned the difference between reality and make-believe,” writes Julia Higginson of the Alaska Sleep Education Center. This explains why smaller children will describe their fear of monsters and mythical creatures as a reason why they can’t sleep; they believe them to be real.
School-aged children who know the difference still struggle because of their imaginations. Often, fears movies, books, and other media can spawn their fears. Those inputs can create scenarios where fiction becomes reality. That, coupled with the fact that school-aged children are beginning to learn that scary things happen in the world, means they recognize those things can happen to them or their family members while sleeping.
Managing anxiety with children: How to create a positive bedtime routine
If these are some of the reasons for your child’s fears at bedtime, there’s good news. The bedtime routine you create for your child helps them know they are safe and secure — and thereby reduces the causes of bedtime anxiety. When children share control over their feeling of security in their surrounding environment and have a consistent routine to promote their safety, they develop a sense of calm necessary for sleep. They also develop the feeling of security that helps them return to sleep if it’s disrupted.
How to design security into your child’s bedtime routine
Let your child know the value of taking safety and security measures in the home
Help your child understand it’s a good thing to take safety and security measures. Let them see you map out a security plan for when unexpected things happen. It will make them feel reassured when you acknowledge there are precautions in place if something goes wrong. You’re sending the message that they’re safe, because, as the adult, you have already done the work both to secure the home and prevent unexpected dangers. This preparation helps the child recognize the parent is the first buffer to their worry.
Consider explaining general safety to your child. Discuss things like the fastest path out of the house from their bedrooms, how to get outside through their bedroom windows, and the importance of defining a meet-up place in case of an emergency.
The goal is to offer control and confidence, not layer on fear, so maintain an upbeat tone when speaking with your child. Frequently remind your child that even with these precautions, the chances of dangerous things to happen while they’re sleeping are markedly low.
Tips and tricks to incorporate safety in your child’s bedroom routine
Make sleep a family priority and stay consistent
Talk often with your child about how important sleep is for the family, both for the adults and the children. Explain to them that, with their help, your family will be making bedtime rituals a part of each evening without waiver. All children — especially children with anxiety — operate optimally when they know their routine. The steps you take leading to bed can provide a smooth path to sleep.
Children model what they see from their parents, so conducting the bedtime routine with them is helpful.
Be mindful of every part of your child’s bedtime routine. Schedule out your shared nightly ritual to include time for both the home security measures and other needs — like grooming (baths, brushing teeth, combing hair) and calming tactics (reading, singing, tickling).
Talk to your child about what safety means to them
When parents are tired and ready for their child’s day to be over, it can be easy to listen to their fears with only a portion of attention, then disregard the fear with, “That will never happen. Don’t be silly. Go back to bed.”
The truth is, most kids don’t want to lay awake; they simply cannot get to sleep with unsettling thoughts about their safety.
Try not to rush your child away from their fears or hastily guess what they might be. Instead, listen to them, so you know exactly what you’re dealing with. Depending upon your child’s age, level of imagination, and exposure to news events, they could be experiencing some fears at bedtime that a talk about security can help. Help your child identify which fears are real threats and which are made up.
Displaying patience and empathy will allow your child to name their safety worries specifically. This will help when it is time to introduce conversations around the security measures your family is taking. The important thing is not to be afraid to talk openly with your anxious child.
Dr. Mona Potter is the medical director of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program and McLean Child and Adolescent Outpatient Services. She says one of the techniques she often uses in cognitive behavior therapy is, “to practice ‘detective-thinking’ to catch, check, and change anxious thoughts.”
She says she also encourages children “to approach, rather than avoid, anxiety-provoking triggers.”
This means children are having anxious thoughts in the first place, requiring open conversations between parents and children about their fears.
Create a routine with your home security system to make your child feel secure
As part of the bedtime routine, provide a security walk-through for your child. Have them follow your own nightly routine involving locking all windows and doors, activating the home security system, securing any automated systems like the Nest Smart Home, a camera system, or a doorbell camera, and leaving the outdoor security floodlight on. Even let them do the locking/arming systems themselves, so they get the feel of it.
It is a good idea to have a conversation about the importance of the alarm system and how it does its job. Be sure to include that keeping the alarm system’s code private is crucial and that it’s not to be shared with anyone outside the family.
You may also want to let your child suggest what they want to do to help secure the home. If they have an additional ritual or two to add to the nightly security walk-through, it will be helpful for them to offer their contributions.
The walk-through, which shows your child how secure and prepared your home is, is meant to give children with anxiety a sense of control and understanding over their circumstances, not ignite more fear. If you sense increased anxiety from your child during the security walk-through, redirect and try other ways to acknowledge and manage fears.
Provide a safe and calming bedroom space
Ensure the bedroom you’ve chosen for your child is a calming place.
Make sure your child’s room is clear of external stimuli that could disrupt their sleep. A motion-activated flood light near the window, for instance, would invite more anxiety if it’s triggered in the night by a neighbor’s cat.
Some ideas that can help extinguish bedtime fears are to incorporate silliness and playfulness in your discussion with your child. You can use dramatic play, draw and talk about the irrational fear, and imagine the perceived threat with outlandish features, like roller skates or a pink unicorn horn. Try not to make it a habit to check under the bed or in the closet frequently, as this can feed into ongoing paranoia.
Another idea is to externalize the worry by “giving it away.” In Guatemala, there’s a tradition of instructing children to give their worries to little dolls called “worry dolls: or “trouble dolls.” According to Childrens MD, parents teach children to have a conversation with their dolls before bedtime, telling the dolls their worries, then they tuck them beneath their pillow. The dolls are supposed to then worry for the child while the child sleeps peacefully. Perhaps teach your child to “give away” their worries to an inanimate object, such as a stuffed animal or a doll you already own.
Books can also help children to process their concerns, so consider finding books to read at bedtime that have themes around comfort and security. Also, consider putting a night light in their bedroom that will stay on through the night.
Finally, remind the child how close the parent’s room is if there’s an urgent need.
Regardless of what kind of home security system you use, general safety and security is a must
Be sure to check the locks on your windows and doors. Be aware of where your fire and carbon monoxide alarms are, and keep them operational. If you don’t have a security system, making this investment could be an added benefit.
The advantage of a routine
A child’s sense of ownership is important
“[Responsibility] is about an attitude, the idea of taking action and being proud of doing it, not just always having your mom and dad do it for you,” says Alex Barzi, a licensed clinical psychologist and co-host of the talk show “About Our Kids” on Sirius Doctor Radio.
A child’s sense of ownership, responsibility, and control over the home’s safety and security will give them an attitude of confidence, thereby reducing nighttime anxiety. Allowing the child to perform the bedtime security walk-through and inviting them to add input in the routine helps instill this confidence.
In giving the child a sense of ownership, you will also eliminate the nightly power struggles that are apt to occur when a child has no say. When a child has ownership and a role in the bedtime routine, they’re less likely to buck at the system they helped to create.
Routines help parents create a positive connection to their child
Children learn to look forward to the things they enjoy, and they will know that the bedtime routine is enjoyable, since they’re part of it. You’ll also find that since the bedtime routine is consistent each night, there will be more time for caring, natural interactions because all the guesswork is removed.
It’s helpful to create a healthy idea of what “secure” means
Now that you’ve opened up the lines of communication about fears and introduced the topic of home security to your child, you’ve developed an easy habit of talking about tough things. You’ve addressed each of their concerns with an open mind and an empathetic attitude, and this will serve your family well.
Get to sleep, and stay asleep
Sleep is essential to the entire family unit, and your child will experience greater success in getting to sleep and staying asleep when they know their home is safe and secure.
Speak openly to your child about fear and help them separate the irrational fears from the rational ones. Develop a consistent bedtime routine complete with a security component, and decrease anxiety before bedtime.
Having a security walk-through included in your nightly bedtime routine gives your children with anxiety a sense of control over their safety. This both teaches them the skills they will eventually need to know and helps them take a role in overcoming their anxiety in the present.