Lockdown anxiety in young children

How to protect sleep when it’s more important than ever

Sleep is always a key function to our health, but now more than ever it’s important for both our physical health and immune function, as well as our mental health and anxiety.

Is your child showing signs of anxiety during the lockdown?

Even the most resilient of children are likely to exhibit mild symptoms of anxiety during this pandemic. Their daily routine has been turned upside down, they have no social contact with their peers, as well as limited time to let off some steam. They are stuck at home instead of nursery or the myriad of classes/soft play/playgrounds/playdates that most young children are used to every week. They are also picking up on OUR anxiety, no matter how hard we try to conceal it. It’s only natural given the circumstances and gravity of what we are all going through right now.

So, what are the signs of anxiety in a younger child?

According to the NHS, an anxious child may:

  • have difficulty sleeping and/or experiencing nightmares 
  • show signs of separation anxiety such as clinginess and not wanting you to leave at bedtime 
  • exhibiting behavioural issues including tantrums, anger and irritability
  • have increased crying episodes
  • be worrying or have negative thoughts
  • have a decreased appetite
  • feel tense or fidgety, using the toilet more frequently
  • complain of tummy aches 
  • have difficulty concentrating

We can all see these signs in our child from time to time, but your little one may be anxious if they are displaying a collection of these symptoms or if any are more heightened than usual. 

How can you help your child?

First and foremost, you need to make sure you are also looking after yourself. Easier said than done, but you need to find time in your day to reduce your own anxiety. The good news is, many of the following measures will help both you and your child:

  • Keep social contact, even from a distance. Social stimulation is a vital part of human emotional wellbeing so use technology to connect with family and friends as often as you can.
  • Use your daily exercise allocation, even if it is just a walk around the block to get some fresh air and stretch your legs. Inside, make use of the vast number of online classes. We’ve been doing Cosmic Kids Yoga at our house and it’s has been a great stress buster – the stories are perfect for young children and they don’t even realise they’re exercising!
  • Reduce your news intake by limiting your viewing to key government announcements and guidelines. Too much consumption is only going to increase the whole family’s anxiety. If you want child focussed media, BBC Newsround have lots of coronavirus videos aimed at children.
  • Set up a new routine that works for your household. If your child is old enough, allow them to be part of the decision making which will help them stick to it. For young children, have visual cues to help them know what is coming next each day – they don’t need to be able to tell the time. Build in meal times, naps or quiet time, reading, fun activities, exercise and so on. However, it’s crucial to be flexible. If either you or your child aren’t feeling it one day, just go with the flow and do what feels right.
  • Maintain a healthy diet which is important not only for anxiety levels but also for immunity right now. Get your child involved in the choices and preparation of meals where possible, and there are lots of ideas on Pinterest for creative ways to make food fun such as fruit trees, funny faces with spaghetti hair and lots more! You can also try playing games with real or pretend food to help teach your child what’s healthy – we played a great taste test game with various foods and a blindfold, guessing the taste and texture of each one.
  • Allow your child to talk about the crisis and use child-friendly media to help them understand and answer any questions they may have. I shared on social media recently a great lift-the flap Usborne book we have What Are Germs? which we’ve found super helpful in explaining what a virus is and how to stop the spread of germs. There are also charities and helplines to support children if they are old enough and need some extra help – these include Young Minds, The Mix and Shout.
  • Use calming activities and relaxation techniques to help your child if they are struggling. As well as Cosmic Kids Yoga above, these can include breathing exercises, counting/sorting tasks, creative play such as painting or colouring, and reading. 

In order to manage any of the above, it’s crucial to all be getting a good night’s sleep wherever possible. Here’s some extra sleep tips to help make that happen:

  • Keep a calming bedtime routine for both you and your child to ensure you are in the right frame of mind before saying goodnight. Turn down the lights or darken the room, have predictable steps each night and use relaxation techniques to help wind down. This can include massage, reading, yoga/stretching, relaxing music and meditation. Calm is a leading app for adults and for guide meditation stories for children try the Moshi Sleep app. It’s also a time when your child is most likely to open up about their anxieties so allow them the space to open up. Lavender is also a calming scent that can be useful along with the other techniques. 
  • Separation anxiety is highly likely to appear at some point during the lockdown. It’s only natural that spending so much time with us during the day will lead to an increased desire to be with us during the night too. Throw anxiety into the mix and it’s a recipe for sleep disaster. If your child is struggling to be alone, try to reassure them before leaving the room. Comforters (any safe favourite toy or object) that ‘hold’ extra kisses from Mummy or Daddy can help, as well keeping bedtime goodbyes positive. Talking about what you are going to get up to the next day can help keep things light and keeps their mind thinking about these adventures as you leave the room. If some nights, you’re child is just too upset by you leaving the room, just stay with them until they are drowsy or completely asleep. There are always measures such as the Gradual Retreat you can use when anxiety levels return to normal. If they are awake in the night needing extra cuddles, try to keep them in their own sleep environment where possible as this is a much easier place to start from when all of this has blown over. 
  • If nightmares have increased lately, try to increase the dialogue you have with your child during the day about the pandemic as well as the topic of their bad dreams, without pressing the issue. Dream catchers can be a useful tool for slightly older children, as well as explaining ways they can change their dreams. For example, if they are having recurring dreams about monsters, asking them to do something funny in their dream to chase the monster away such as blowing a raspberry. This helps to turn the negative emotions into a positive one, and children love to goof around! Another common anxiety is the dark, so exploring shadows during the day with a torch and where light/dark comes from can help, as well as a fun night light kept on at bedtime and overnight. If their dreams are virus related, this is definitely a case for reducing media intake and making sure they are aware that the social distancing keeping you at home is also keeping you safe. The government have produced a children’s guide to coronavirus to help explain what’s going on.

Albeit remotely, I am still here supporting families with sleep during this crisis. So please get in touch if you need more specific, tailored advice for your little ones. 

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