By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
The American Psychological Association recently issued a press release about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our dreaming. Not surprisingly, the information in four published articles indicates that people are having more anxious dreams now. This seems obvious given the emotional toll and high levels of stress as everyone juggles work, virtual school, health and safety, and family needs in a pandemic. We have an overflowing plate of stress on our hands with distant notions of when this stress will end. While these articles describe the anxious dreaming and sleep of adults, it’s not a stretch to consider that children and teens may have disrupted sleep right now. Their plates are overflowing, too, as they manage virtual and hybrid learning, confusing social demands, less movement and exercise than usual, and less contact with both adults and kids.
We cannot underestimate the importance of sleep to our system. Sleep is when our body restores itself, builds important immune functions and consolidates memories and learning. When children do not get enough sleep, we can see a whole host of problems, including issues with attention, concentration, learning, irritability, poor emotion regulation and risky behaviors in addition to the physical health outcomes.
What do we do to help our kids and teens get more and better sleep? It’s time to get sleep hygiene back on track. It’s possible to do even if the pandemic has caused the norm to drastically shift. Here are some tips for promoting sleep for children and teens:
Establish a consistent schedule. I cannot emphasize this one enough. Establish consistent times for settling down for bed and waking up that are the same every day of the week. Try to stick to this schedule whether your child is having an in-person learning day or remote, whether it is a weekend or weekday. This can be tricky with teenagers who tend to sleep in on weekend days. Try to stick within an hour, if possible, to get your body on a more consistent schedule. Avoid naps during the day if you can, even if there has been a rough night of sleep (or limit naps to less than 30 minutes). Daytime napping can interrupt night sleep patterns.
Develop a routine to settle for bed. Children and teens need to settle down for bed gradually. We can’t go from wide awake to peaceful slumber in a few moments. Limit screen time 30 minutes before bed as the light that is given off by televisions, phones or other devices confuses our systems and causes delays in releasing melatonin (the magic sleep hormone). Choose the same relaxing activity each night. Children and teens can read (or listen to a story read aloud by a parent), listen to an audiobook, color in special coloring book, listen to music or a podcast, or take a warm bath or shower. Include your child or teen in conversations about what relaxing activity to try before bed. Keep the same activity for several weeks before trying other ones. The brain does not want variety when you are trying to settle for bed, or it can become more alert in the face of a novel activity. The routine promotes relaxation.
Schedule talk time. Children and teens tend to think about their day as they are laying down. This can lead to “just one more thing” that kids have to tell us or one more question. They can also anticipate what is happening next, which can lead to an increase in anxiety. Schedule a “talk time” with your child or teen to discuss the day and think ahead to tomorrow. Do this at least 30 minutes before bedtime (ideally closer to dinnertime) to avoid a lengthy conversation that can activate anxiety. Use this time to validate feelings and model problem-solving about any issues coming up.
Provide comfort after dreams. We can expect that everyone may wake up at some point after an anxiety dream. If we can predict it, it can make it feel less overwhelming. Teach children and teens what to do when they wake up feeling anxious, including seeking the support of their parent for the very upsetting ones. Offer comfort and a tuck back into bed. Encourage your child to talk about how to resolve the frightening dream in a way that is silly, funny or triumphant to shift the focus away from what felt upsetting. Have a scary dream about a monster? Imagine him having to perform a ballet while balancing hot sauce on his head. Have an anxiety dream about a teacher yelling at you for forgetting your homework? Imagine turning it in and your teacher leading the rest of class in a celebratory song. You can also encourage children or teens to think of their favorite movie or book, and ask them to close their eyes and replay the movie or book to refocus the mind.
Practice breathing. To soothe our overactive anxiety systems, practice taking deep breaths. Imagine your breath filling up the back of your lungs and visualize the air going through your body. Practice circle breathing where air comes in one nostril and out the other (of course it comes in and goes out both!). With younger kids, a little modeling helps. You can also encourage kids and teens to tense different parts of their body, hold for a count of 10, and then release to feel more relaxed.
Reach out for help. If your child or teen has persistent trouble with sleep, contact your pediatrician. It may be time for a more thorough evaluation to rule out sleep disorders, medical causes or behavioral patterns that signal a bigger sleep problem.
For more information, please check out these resources:
American Psychological Association (APA) press release related to dreaming: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/09/upsetting-dreams-covid-19
Fantastic APA resource on sleep: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/07/ce-corner-sleep
What To Do When You Dread Your Bed: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Problems with Sleep (2008) by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D.
About the Author:
Dr. Creedon has expertise in evaluating children and teens with a variety of presenting issues. She is interested in uncovering an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses to best formulate a plan for intervention and success. With experiences providing therapy and assessments, Dr. Creedon bridges the gap between testing data and therapeutic services to develop a clear roadmap for change and deeper of understanding of individual needs.
If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.