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Managing Anxiety in Children: 7 Ways to Help Your Neurodivergent Child Sleep Independently

Updated: Mar 20

Anxiety is a common experience among children and can have a significant impact on their daily lives. Children with anxiety may struggle with sleeping, which can lead to a range of negative consequences such as irritability, difficulty concentrating, and decreased academic performance.

As parents, it is important to understand the causes and effects of anxiety in neurodivergent children and to learn strategies for managing it effectively.

In this blog, we will explore the relationship between anxiety and sleep in children, the importance of managing anxiety in neurodivergent children, and strategies for helping neurodivergent children with anxiety sleep independently.

By providing a deeper understanding of these topics, I hope to equip parents with the tools they need to support their children's mental health and well-being.

Disclaimer: Please note that some of the links found in this blog are affiliate links and I will earn a commission if you purchase through those links. I use all of the products mentioned and recommend them because they are companies that I have found helpful and trustworthy.

Understanding Anxiety and Neurodivergent Children

Neurodivergent children may be more likely to experience anxiety for several reasons related to their neurological differences.

Firstly, some neurodivergent conditions such as autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder can cause heightened sensitivity to sensory input, such as loud noises, bright lights, or strong smells. This can result in a constant state of overstimulation, which can be exhausting and overwhelming, leading to feelings of anxiety.

Secondly, many neurodivergent children struggle with social interactions and communication, which can lead to feelings of isolation and difficulty in making and maintaining friendships. This social anxiety can be compounded by the fact that neurodivergent children may face stigma, misunderstanding, and discrimination, which can lead to feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.

Thirdly, neurodivergent children may struggle with changes in routine or unexpected events, which can trigger anxiety. For example, a change in the classroom schedule or an unexpected fire drill can be particularly distressing for a child with autism or ADHD.

Finally, neurodivergent children may be more likely to have co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety disorders, which can exacerbate anxiety symptoms.

It's important to note that not all neurodivergent children experience anxiety, and that anxiety can also affect neurotypical children.

How does anxiety in neurodivergent children affect their sleep?

Anxiety in neurodivergent children can have a significant impact on their sleep patterns. Here are some ways anxiety can affect sleep:

  • Difficulty falling asleep: Anxiety can cause racing thoughts and worry, making it difficult for a child to relax and fall asleep.

  • Sleep onset insomnia: This is when a child has difficulty falling asleep at the beginning of the night, often caused by anxiety and worry.

  • Nighttime awakenings: Anxiety can cause a child to wake up during the night, and they may have difficulty falling back asleep.

  • Nightmares: Anxiety can lead to nightmares, which can be particularly distressing for a child.

  • Sleep apnea: Neurodivergent children may be more likely to have sleep apnea, which can also affect sleep quality and cause daytime fatigue.

  • Hypersomnia: In some cases, anxiety can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, making it difficult for a child to stay awake and alert during the day.

Strategies for Helping Neurodivergent Children with Anxiety Sleep Independently

Start by empathizing.

Even if your child's fears seem unreasonable to you, it's important to create a sense of emotional safety by acknowledging and validating their fear. Avoid questioning their fear by asking "Why are you scared?" or dismissing it by saying "You don't need to worry." Instead, try phrases like "I understand that you're feeling scared right now," or "I know that worry is really bothering you," or even "I've felt afraid before, and I want to help you through this." The goal is to make your child feel heard and supported, rather than dismissed or invalidated.

Encourage your child to see that worry is a choice.

Instead of immediately reassuring your child when they express fear or worry, try to help them separate themselves from those feelings. Encourage them to see that worry is a choice and not something they have to give in to. You can say something like, "I understand you're feeling scared. Can you tell me more about what your worry is telling you? Then let's talk about what you really think." This approach can help your child learn to identify and challenge their anxious thoughts, and feel empowered to take control of their feelings.

Help your child to better understand and address their fears.

Encourage them to identify the specific thing they are afraid of. Ask them questions such as, "What's the real fear here?" or "Can you name what you're afraid of?" Avoid guessing or suggesting potential fears for them, as this could unintentionally introduce new worries. Instead, try using phrases like, "It sounds like worry is really bothering you. Can you tell me more about what it's saying?" or "What's the one thing that bothers you the most?" This approach can help your child focus on the specific source of their anxiety, and develop strategies for managing it.

Encourage your child to challenge their worries by "fact-checking" them.

Once your child has identified their fears and worries, either by writing them down or verbalizing them, ask them to put each worry to the test. You can ask questions like, "How true do you think this worry is?" or "What do you really think is going to happen?" Help your child understand that worry is like a student taking a test, and they need to evaluate whether their worry is "right" or "wrong" based on what they know to be true. For example, you could ask, "If you were taking a test at school, would the teacher mark that answer right or wrong?" You can also encourage your child to use their "smart brain" to challenge their anxious thoughts. Even young children can benefit from this exercise using finger puppets to represent the worried brain and smart brain, while older children can write down their fears and facts side-by-side. By separating facts from fears, your child can use their logical thinking to counteract their worry. Consider keeping a list of the facts by their bedside for quick reference.

Encourage your child to combat their fears with creativity.

Encourage your child to combat their fears with creativity by doing a "monster makeover." If your child is scared of monsters or other scary creatures, help them draw or describe their monster. Then, challenge them to use their imagination to turn their monster into a silly version. For example, they could add roller skates, a polka dot bikini, a tutu, juggling balls, birthday hats, exaggerated muscles, banana peels to slip on, and so on. This exercise can help your child shift their focus away from their fears and towards their creativity, while also helping them feel more in control of their thoughts and emotions. Repeat this exercise as needed, and encourage your child to come up with new silly versions each time.

Make practicing fun and purposeful.

Make practicing fun and purposeful by organizing a "camping trip" in your child's room. Give each of you a flashlight and hide some glow-in-the-dark items from the dollar store for your child to find. Encourage your child to be the "tour guide" and lead you down a dimly lit hallway, pointing out where the light switches or lamps are and showing you how to turn them on. Giving your child the "title" of tour guide will help them feel more confident in the semi-dark, while also teaching them an important skill. This activity can also be a fun way to bond with your child and create positive associations with being in the dark.

Gradually reduce light to help your child overcome fear of the dark.

Gradually reduce the amount of light in your child's room to help them overcome their fear of the dark. Many children end up sleeping with multiple lights on, which can be disruptive to their sleep and prevent them from adjusting to darkness. Start by using lower wattage light bulbs and then transition to night-lights placed at the baseboard rather than at eye level. Encourage your child to adjust to the lower level of light and reassure them that their eyes will adjust to the darkness within a few minutes. Over time, you can further reduce the amount of light until you're only using one source of soft, gentle light. This will help your child learn to feel safe and comfortable in the dark.

Create a designated “worry time”.

If your child's worries are keeping them up at night and causing frustration for both of you, consider designating a specific time for them to express their fears and practice "fact checking." Set aside five minutes earlier in the day, such as after school or after dinner, to create a space for your child to voice their concerns and work through them. This way, your child will be better prepared to handle their worries at bedtime and hopefully have a more restful night's sleep.

End bedtime on a positive note.

End bedtime on a positive note with the "Four Doors Exercise". Once your child has addressed their worries, it's important to redirect their focus to something positive. Encourage your child to think of four things they enjoy and would like to think about at bedtime such as a favorite hobby, a dream vacation, or funny moments with their pet. Draw four doors on a sheet of paper and have them fill in each door with an idea. Your child can choose which door they want to "go through" each night and share their adventure with you over breakfast. This exercise will help your child end the day on a positive note and give them something to look forward to at bedtime.

Other Helpful Tips for Managing Anxiety in Neurodivergent Children

Develop a calming bedtime routine

Establishing a consistent bedtime routine can help neurodivergent children with anxiety feel more secure and calm as they prepare for sleep. This routine may include activities such as reading a story, taking a warm bath, or listening to calming music.

Further reading: How to Make Your Neurodivergent Child's Positive Reinforcement System a Success

Teach relaxation techniques

Teaching your child relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or visualization can help them learn to calm their body and mind before bed. Encouraging them to practice these techniques throughout the day can also help them manage anxiety during other activities.

Create a safe and comfortable sleep environment

Ensuring that your child's sleep environment is safe and comfortable can help reduce anxiety and promote restful sleep. This may include using a weighted blanket or a calming night light, as well as removing any sensory triggers that may be causing distress.

Provide reassurance and support

Neurodivergent children with anxiety may benefit from extra reassurance and support from their caregivers. This may involve talking with your child about their fears and concerns, validating their emotions, and providing positive feedback and encouragement.

Further reading: How to Make Your Neurodivergent Child's Positive Reinforcement System a Success

Encourage exercise and physical activity

Physical activity can be an effective way to reduce anxiety and promote overall well-being in neurodivergent children. Encouraging your child to engage in regular exercise or physical activity can help them manage anxiety and sleep better at night.

Practice mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness and meditation practices can also help neurodivergent children with anxiety learn to manage their emotions and reduce stress. Simple practices such as deep breathing or body scans can be incorporated into your child's daily routine to promote relaxation and improve sleep quality.

Address any underlying causes of anxiety

Identifying and addressing any underlying causes of anxiety, such as academic or social pressures, can help reduce your child's overall stress and anxiety levels. Working with a therapist or counselor can be an effective way to address these underlying issues and develop a personalized plan for managing anxiety.

Remember that helping neurodivergent children with anxiety sleep independently can be a challenging but rewarding process. Learning to manage anxiety in neurodivergent children is an important aspect of promoting their overall mental health and well-being.

By understanding the specific challenges and triggers that your child may face, and implementing effective strategies such as developing a calming bedtime routine, teaching relaxation techniques, and creating a safe and comfortable sleep environment, you can help your child manage their anxiety and sleep better at night.

It is important to remember that managing anxiety in neurodivergent children requires consistent and compassionate support from caregivers. Encouraging your child to practice mindfulness and physical activity, as well as addressing any underlying causes of anxiety, can also be effective in promoting their overall well-being.

Finally, if you find that your child's anxiety is impacting their daily life, it is important to seek professional help from a therapist or Sleep Consultant. These professionals can provide personalized support and guidance for managing your child's anxiety and promoting their mental health. With consistent support and effective strategies, you can help your neurodivergent child sleep independently and thrive.

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