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When anxiety interrupts sleep

Surviving or witnessing traumatic events commonly results in difficulty with sleep.

Many children and teens will have difficulty with sleep in the aftermath of a traumatic event.  Fear of being alone while falling asleep can be a difficult start to the night, but even after falling asleep, nightmares or awakening in the night with a sense of fear disrupts their usual sleep pattern.  Youth often have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.  Sound sleep is essential for growth and development of the body and, especially, of the brain.  Interrupted sleep can result in irritability, anger, aggression, decreased tolerance and coping and much more.  Long-term consequences last through adulthood, so it is worth taking time to help your child get adequate restful sleep.

depressed woman teen
woman hugging girl

How long is too long to wait?

For some youth, families can find ways to help them feel safe and regain a healthy sleeping pattern.  It is worth trying as many creative solutions as possible as quickly as possible, because the longer their sleep is disrupted, the longer it will be before the rest of their lives feel balanced. So try all you can that might work for a few days.  If things are steadily improving, keep going.  But if you’re a couple of weeks past the event and your child is still really struggling with sleep, seek assistance.  School counselors and mental health workers have lots of ideas!  Don’t wait it out!  Everyone will feel better when the whole family is sleeping well.

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Actions that might help.

Before working on these steps with your child, recognize:

  • This is likely new for all of you. 
  • Acknowledge that it takes a lot out of us to see our kids struggle.
  • Their struggle isn’t a choice for them.
  • Listen much more than you speak.
  • Much of what they’re experiencing may be beyond their verbal capacity to explain.
  • The younger the child, the more they’ll let you know their needs by behaviors rather than telling you.

 

There are several dynamics at play that are interrelated:

  • Media coverage is overwhelming.  Children have less ability to “screen” what they see or “let in” than adults. Adults are more apt to turn away at some point.  Children often become absorbed and just take it all in.
  • Some of the difficulty is based in fear, and for good reason.  Their fear is likely rational on many levels.
  • The biochemistry in the body from hyper vigilance makes it difficult to fall asleep.
  • A range of emotional reactions are likely to accompany the sleep difficulties.
  • Solutions will likely be a combination of what has worked before and some new strategies.

Take heart!  There is much that can help!  Solutions will likely be a combination of re-establishing their usual bedtime routine along with new strategies.

teenage boy reading a phone in bed

Exposure to graphic media coverage makes things worse!

Especially with sleep difficulties, what youth have seen is often what comes up in their nightmares.  Often visuals from media coverage can be plenty powerful enough to be overwhelming.  Seeing images and graphic video (or television) coverage of events makes both youth and adults far more likely to have flashbacks and dream/sleep disturbances.  A few thoughts for this:

  • Turn off the TV.  You can read what you need to know online from a trusted news source and have conversations with your children rather than exposing them to news coverage.
  • Being the source of information for your children allows you to choose the level of detail they hear.
  • You can choose language that is developmental appropriate for your child.
  • Television tends to cover the same content repeatedly, which reinforces the memory of those disturbing images again and again.
  • Psychological saturation from ongoing coverage leaves us feeling helpless and diminishes hope.
  • When a terrible event dominates the news, we lose our sense of the beauty and function of the world outside of the event.
  • The light that screens emit tells our brains it is high noon and we should not get tired for many hours.  Even without trauma, light from screens affects our brains and our sleep.
  • Source your news carefully!  Find sources that don’t dramatize and conjure up anger and fear.  Look for facts that will be helpful.

 

Falling Asleep

Activity #1: Trust

This activity focuses on individual coping skills. Each person will need one sheet of paper.

“At a time when it seems like everything is changing, we tend to lose track of the things that we can still trust.  The things that bring some level of comfort because we know we can depend on these things.

“Draw a line down the center of your paper. 

  • On the left:  Things that are changing. 
  • On the right: elements of this change that might still remain.”

Examples:

School is onlineMy teacher still cares about me
I can’t be with my GrandmaShe still lets me know she loves me
I can’t be with my friendsWe can still connect online

Concluding Your ConversationThe parts that remain true (right column) don’t make up for the losses and changes (column 2), but it may be helpful to hold on to those we realize are helpful in the short run. Remember, this will not last forever. It will change our lives, but it won’t last forever.

Activity #2: How We Adapt as Individuals

Create three columns on a sheet of paper.

Column 1

“Let’s think of the longest list we can of things you didn’t know how to do when you were younger, and you have learned how to do them.”

 

Ideas for Youngers

  • When you were really little and I rolled a ball to you but then it bounced away, you would cry. Then you learned that if the ball didn’t stop at your feet, you could use your feet to go get the ball.
  • When you played outside and the weather went from chilly to warm, you learned that you could adapt by taking off your coat.
  • When you from training wheel on your bike to two wheels, you learned how to balance.
  • In kindergarten, you learned that your teacher had different rules than we have at home.  You knew to share both places, but at school, you learned how to line up and be patient in a way you didn’t have to be here.
  • You went from picture books to books with words because you learned how to read.

Ideas for Olders

  • On the first day of middle school, you learned where your locker was, how to get to classes and what to bring to each class.
  • When I’m not able to be home, you learned how to entertain yourself, stay safe, and finish any chores.

Column 2

“What skill did you learn to master each of these changes? What kind of skill did you use or develop to cope?”

Column 3

“Who are the people who helped you with this?”

Concluding your conversation. Who is the hero inside of you (or the superpower you have) that helps you adapt? Are there things on our list that we could share with others to help them understand this concept of adaptability?

Activity #3: Drifting off to sleep

This is an activity for bedtime that helps youth calm their neurological system.

This approach is most helpful when you’ve already established at least a three-step bedtime ritual.  Having several predictable steps that prepare us for bedtime gives our bodies the message that it is time to wind down.  This next step smoothly helps your child’s neurological system continue to settle down for sleep.  It will be helpful if the last step in the list is to read together in bed.  Then:

Lie side-by-side on the bed with your child.  Have your child place a hand on your chest or stomach, and you do the same on your child’s chest or stomach.  The goal is for the parents to be using mindful breathing, gently slowing over time.  Remember that breathing into the lower belly has additional positive effect on calming the nervous system.

Over time there is a co-regulation of breath and co-regulation of heartbeat. You become bodies at rest and calm. Having quiet music playing, or nature sounds of forest/waves can be helpful. This is a time for no talking, so the language center of the brain can rest.

It is common for sessions to be shorter in duration initially, however should increas over time. Some parents may have the time to stay in this posture until the child actually falls asleep. Some will not have this time, however could quietly kiss child good-night, once child’s nervous system is at rest, leave music/sound playing, and tiptoe from the room.

 

Activity #4: We Feel Better When We Can Help

Nobody wants to feel helpless!  And one of the best ways to feel better is to be helping others.  It helps us stop feeling sorry for ourselves, and it is one way we can have a little sense of control.

“Let’s make a list of all the people who are less fortunate than we are right now.”

Parents, you can help by suggesting what they don’t think of, like homeless kids, homeless anybody, older people afraid to go shopping, doctors and nurses who need masks and gloves. Make the list as long as you can.

Then go back and look at each one.  “If someone could do something that would help these people, it might be…..If there were one thing that kids could do that might help it could be….”

Concluding the conversation. See if there is anything at all you can do to help those less fortunate that you.

Taking it further for olders

  • Can you get a group of your classmates to come together to do something for one of these groups?
  • Are there letters you could write that would help someone feel better?

Downloadable Resources

Prompts for Meaningful Discussion

The following three prompts can be spread out over the week. Plan for at least 15 minutes to have these conversations.

Consider the following model:

  • Have one person read the prompt.
  • Let each person respond to the prompt, speaking uninterrupted as long as needed. (Younger children may need encouragement and questions to keep sharing.)
  • Remind each person to respond to the question, not what anyone else has said.
  • After everyone has spoken, talk about what you learned from each other and about each other. What did you have in common?
  • Make a plan as a family to keep practicing the things you’ve each learned through your family discussion.
Prompt #1: Learning New Things

“Think of a time when you were going to learn something or do something new and you really didn’t know how it was going to turn out. You maybe didn’t even know how to start. Talk about the scariest part of trying something new.

Consider:

  • When we’re learning how to get through something new sometimes it is helpful to have adults or role models who show us how to do it, or show us how to do something similar.  What are some examples of that in your life?  Who are the adults in your world who might have ideas on how to get through something new?
  • Starting something new takes courage.

Let each person share. As a family, talk about how we find the courage to start something new.

 

Concluding Your Conversation: Although there are a lot of things that might be different than we thought in the future, we’ve already seen that people have been very creative in coming up with solutions to the challenges we face right now.

  • Grocery stores figured out how to do curb-side pick-up.
  • People have figured out how to leave something on the porch for someone and the people picking it up know to spray it with disinfectant.
  • Teachers are teaching students online.

We never thought that everybody would be online for school! Today, think of ways that our coping strategies now might become a little bit more of our new normal. Even though we’ll be back in our classrooms some day, teachers might use online programs to give us some parts of our reading ahead of time, or send us videos that get us ready to learn a new concept.

Prompt #2: How People Invent Things

“There is someone who is very famous who invented something we use every day, and he failed 1000 times before the first one worked.  Edison knew he was onto something, but he created 1000 lightbulbs that didn’t work before he came up with one that did.  There were over 20 other inventors working on lightbulbs at the same time.

Why do you think Edison might have been successful?

Consider:

  • He didn’t give up
  • He didn’t see the first 1000 lightbulbs as failures, but as steps toward the solution. He learned just a little bit more from each one — something that might work.

 

Let each person share. As a family, discuss the personal attributes Edison had that made the difference?

  • Perseverance
  • Courage
  • Believing in himself (not letting others discourage him)
  • Trust in his process

 

Concluding the conversation. We don’t know what we’ll need when this is all over, but some things will be different.  What we have to remember is that there are many great minds that will help create the best of our new normal.  You also need to realize that you have the ability to contribute to some of how your new normal will be.  We are not just victims to this, we have an opportunity to have a hand in creating this new world.

Prompt 3: Anything Is Possible

“Margaret Drabble said, “When nothing is sure, anything is possible.”  Although that is not entirely true by any means, there are some ways that it applies to our current situation.  How might we apply that quote to our future?”

Let each person share. As a family, discuss what will determine whether people are kinder to one another or less kind in the future. After we’re through this, what will determine what kind of a friend you will be to others, and what kind of a friend they will be to you?

 

Concluding the conversation. This experience will change us. It will change our community. But we get to choose the kind of people we will be. Let’s choose to live with more empathy and appreciation for others. Let’s learn to be thankful for things every single day. And let’s appreciate that we can all get through anything together, even when we don’t know what the outcome will be.

Rehearse Affirmations

Affirmations can help us focus most of our thoughts on positive things. Try these and then make some with your children!

  • “Even though I don’t know how we’ll cope and adjust, I realize we will cope and adjust.”
  • “I have people around me who want to help me move forward.”
  • “Even when things feel uncertain, I can still choose to be kind.”
  • “No matter how difficult today might seem, I can always find something for which to be thankful.”

 

Practice Mindfulness

Use the following mindfulness recording to help you and your child relax throughout the week. Use them as many times throughout the week as needed and remind each other of the concepts you’re learning.

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