It’s 11 pm, and once again, your child is still wide awake. He’s asking questions about whether he could fail fourth grade and what will happen to him if you die. He says he can’t stop thinking about scary things.
Anxiety is common in school-aged children. Only about 3% of children are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but as your child grows more aware of the world, worries about everything from school and social life to natural disasters could occupy his mind as he’s trying to fall asleep. If you suspect your child may have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, it’s important to talk with your pediatrician about treatment, since even mild anxiety can disrupt your child’s life in many ways. As a starting point, though, a few simple mindfulness practices could help your child calm down and sleep.
Mindfulness practice may sound a little too focused for your energetic 7-year-old, but the key to mindfulness is simply to transition from doing and thinking to just being. And it’s not just for yogi practitioners and zen masters - mindfulness is a simple technique that anyone (even your child) can master. Becoming mindful is about focusing on what is instead of what could be, what was, or what will be. It’s about becoming aware of the present and focused on the present, instead of thinking and worrying about the past or the future.
Here’s how you can help your child learn mindfulness and use it for a better night’s sleep.
Review the day
Sometimes, before you can clear your mind, you need to let your thoughts speak. A mindful review of the day gives your child a chance to relive the day and remember all the things that happened. By becoming deliberately aware of the things that happened that day, and the things he’s proud of, unhappy about, or worried about, your child can more easily let go of those thoughts and memories, so they don’t intrude to disturb him as he’s relaxing into sleep.
Start by asking three questions: what was the best moment of today? What was the worst moment of today? What do you want to remember today? For each answer, help your child go fully into the memory of the moment. Do this with no judgement. Ask for details about all five senses. Listen to the story. Inquire about your child’s feelings in that moment. Don’t make any suggestions or corrections about what he should have done, and don’t question what he feels or thinks about the moment. This is a review, not a lesson - the point is to let him process what he felt and experienced that day so he can let it go. So don’t judge or give suggestions, but do empathize - say things like, “I’m sorry that happened” or “That sounds exciting!” Give your child permission to fully feel what he felt in that moment about the day. Finish your mindful review by focusing on the thing your child wants to remember about the day, and for this memory, go into as much detail as he can remember. If he wants, he can write it down or make a recording of the memory.
Next, do some mindful movement. Stretching is a great way to prepare your body to relax and to prepare your muscles for sleep, and it’s also a great way to let go of the memories and events of the day. As you stretch together, encourage your child to release the day’s events (both good and bad) with the movement of his body. For example, try standing straight up and then bending from the waist to let the hands dangle forward toward the ground. In this pose, encourage your child to imagine all the negative thoughts or events of the day flowing through his body, out of his hands, and into the earth. Or have him stand straight up and stretch his hands above his head, and imagine the memory he wants to keep floating through his hands and head up to the sky, where it will stay in a box so he can look at it and remember it whenever he wants to.
Stretching also helps with body awareness, which helps your child transition away from focusing on his thoughts to focusing on his body and the present moment. Easy, relaxing stretches for kids are legs up the wall - this helps bring blood to the heart and gently stretches the back. Then supine spinal twist - twist legs to the left down to the floor, and then to the right, while keeping back and shoulders flat on the floor. This stretches the back and spine, which is good to do before lying down. Next, of course, child’s pose - kneel and then stretch arms out in front and lean forward until forehead is on the ground. Stretch the arms out. Blood goes to head, and back is relaxed.
Body scan relaxation
This is the same technique that hypnosis therapists use, but you don’t have to study hypnosis to use it at home. It involves helping your child focus on his body instead of on his thoughts, as well as helping him relax. Here’s how it works.
First, start with one body part - usually the feet. Tell your child to tense up the muscles in his feet as tight as he can. Hold them tense for about 2 seconds, and then tell him to relax them all the way - as deeply as he can relax. Next, do the same with the lower legs, then the upper legs, and so on moving up the body. For every part of his body, have him tense, hold for a second or two, and then relax. This helps him become more aware of his muscles and then deliberately relax them, and moving his focus up the body prevents him from getting caught up in tensing muscles again after he relaxes them. After you finish having him tense and release the whole body, tell him to imagine his body is very heavy, too heavy to move, and that he can feel it sinking into the support of the bed. Focusing on the relaxation and heaviness of his body will help him quiet his mind too and let him fall into sleep.
Now it’s time for your child to lie down and get ready for sleep. While lying down, he can use his breathing to become more mindful and relax his body even more.
The first step is just to encourage him to notice his breathing. At first, he shouldn’t try to change anything about it - just pay attention. Then, he can begin to slow it down. Have him breathe in slowly while you count to two, and then breathe out while you count to four. Do this for a few minutes, and breathe with him. Encourage him to breathe deeply, using his belly, not just his chest. If it helps, try putting a favorite stuffed animal on his belly, and tell him to “breathe” the toy to sleep by letting it rise and fall with his breath.
It’s a cliche to think meditating is hard, but the truth is meditating is easy - and it’s easy to do with your child, too. Try lying beside him in bed, and together, continue to focus on your breath. Simply pay attention to your body and breath, and encourage your child to do the same.
You can tell your child to think about nothing, but that usually causes people to think about everything. These wandering thoughts are the biggest challenge with meditating, which is why it’s often easier to give yourself a specific thought to focus on instead of trying to focus on nothing. Work with your child to come up with a mantra of his own that helps him feel relaxed and happy - something simple like “I am loved” or even “sleep is nice.” Then, when other thoughts come into his mind, encourage him to notice them and then let them go. He can visualize the thought passing through his brain like a cloud passing across the sky, or a person walking through his brain and then continuing to walk away. As the thoughts pass through, he can focus again on his happy thought of sleep, restfulness, and love.
Finally, create a regular, nightly ritual of mindful relaxation techniques. Do the ritual in the same order every night, and your child’s brain will learn to stop racing thoughts and relax into the moment when it’s time for sleep.