Child Anxiety Resources and Help

Information, recommendations, and support for parents and loved ones of children with anxiety disorders and phobias.

Sleep Habits Can Affect Levels of Stress and Anxiety in Children and Teens

There are a number of factors that can affect stress and anxiety in children and teens; however, sleep – or lack thereof – plays a major factor in how children and teens react to stress. It’s clear that sleep deprivation can exacerbate anxiety symptoms; on the other hand, sleep disorders may actually cause anxiety, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA).

Does your child snore? It could be sleep apnea. While not all people who snore suffer from sleep apnea, it’s worth looking into if snoring is an issue with your child or teen. According to Steven Y. Park, MD, sleep apnea causes increased levels of carbon dioxide in the body, which, in turn, increases acid levels in the amygdala and “triggers fear and panic attacks.” Why does this occur? Because the amygdala area of the brain is where fear and behavior are processed.

Most likely, your child is not suffering from sleep apnea but rather creating a sleep debt that accumulates over time. Unfortunately, lack of sleep causes a number of physical and emotional problems that can trigger anxiety attacks as well as exacerbate existing problems in children and teens.

The solution may be as simple as getting kids to bed earlier. For parents of young children, scheduled bedtimes are often a part of everyday life; however, even when put to bed early, children with anxiety may lie awake at night with negative thoughts, perpetuating a cycle of sleeplessness. Teens, on the other hand, are often permitted to choose their bedtime, which means they’re often sleep deprived the next day at school.

It’s a fact: Children and teens need a lot of sleep. Babies need an average of 14 hours of sleep a day while adolescents need about nine to ten hours a day. Many parents don’t realize that once children approach puberty, their internal “sleep clock” resets, signaling them to go to bed later; however, that doesn’t mean they need less sleep. It just means that they may be incapable of getting to sleep at an early hour. Often, family squabbles ensue over bedtime rituals when, in reality, a child approaching adolescence may have no control over when he or she can fall asleep.

How do sleep habits affect stress and anxiety levels? Plenty. Furthermore, because sleep deprivation is often cumulative, the effects can intensify. It pays to become well-educated on the causes and cures of sleep deprivation. Here are five ways that sleep habits can affect child anxiety.

Sleep Deprivation Increases Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

When children and teens are deprived of sleep, the physical symptoms associated with anxiety also intensify. Headaches, nausea, and hyperactivity are common responses in sleepy children. Sleep deprivation can also cause muscle achiness, tremors, slurred speech, dizziness, fainting, and even a hernia.

Furthermore, children who lack the necessary sleep experienced a decreased degree of physical coordination. This clumsiness increases the number of accidents. For teens, sleepiness – also known as sleep debt – can be fatal. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy drivers are responsible for 100,000 automobile accidents each year, resulting in approximately 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities. In fact, there are 17 percent more accidents on the Monday following Daylight Savings Time.

Sleep Disturbances Interfere with the Ability to Control Emotions

There is a direct link between sleep deprivation and depression and anxiety. Although depression may lead to excessive sleep in some individuals, studies have shown that children who are deprived of sleep are also at increased risk of depression. Sleep deprivation also makes children and teens irritable and easily frustrated, with emotions that fluctuate up and down. Children who accumulate a sleep debt are more likely to have a negative self-image than those who are well rested.

Sleep Deprivation Leads to Poor Decision Making

When children don’t get enough sleep they often become impatient, which leads to poor decision making. Poor impulse control is also associated with lack of sleep, which often leads to acting out behaviors. Getting the proper amount of sleep goes a long way toward helping children learn to make good decisions during their waking hours.

Sleep Disturbances Lead to Sleepiness in School

There’s no doubt about it; sleepiness in school is a major problem for many children and teens alike. With the inability to focus, children are unable to perform optimally academically. It’s a fact that students who regularly get more sleep also earn higher grades than students who do not sleep well.

One study revealed that students who earn C’s, D’s, and F’s go to bed later than “A” students and get an average of 20 minutes less sleep. Sleepiness leads to learning difficulties, which may be a leading factor for poor performance in school for many children and teens.

Sleep Deprivation That Occurs on a Regular Basis May Be Sleep Anxiety

Sleep anxiety is a problem for 40 million Americans alone, and many children suffer from it as well. Also known as insomnia, your child may suffer from sleep anxiety if he or she has trouble falling asleep, wakes up frequently during the night, wakes up too early, or is fatigued after what appears to be a “good night’s sleep.” If a child regularly has sleep difficulties, sleep anxiety may be an underlying factor. The question is whether child anxiety leads to sleep anxiety or whether sleep anxiety is a contributing factor to general feelings of anxiety.

Children with anxiety can do a number of things to help them sleep better at night:

  • Get physical; children who engage in regular physical activity will fall asleep more quickly than sedentary children.
  • Do relaxation exercises; meditation or deep breathing can help children learn to relax before bedtime, setting the stage for a more restful sleep.
  • Reduce caffeine, sugar, and energy drinks. It’s no secret that caffeine and sugar can make children more hyper, so cutting out the sugary, caffeine-infused drinks can go a long way toward a more peaceful night’s rest.
  • Massage is beneficial; giving a simple back rub can often relax children to the point where they easily fall asleep.
  • Read bedtime stories; by adopting this into the nightly ritual, children may see them as closure to the day’s end.
  • Talk to your child or teen. If a child is lying awake at night reliving problems, it’s often helpful to take the time to talk, listen, and respond to their worries. This act in and of itself may be just what they need to process their troubles and fall asleep.

While there are a number of medications available for children and teens that cannot get to sleep easily, it’s always best to find natural ways to help children relax and sleep through the night.

Establishing healthy sleep habits for children and teens is important for good physical and emotional health. For child anxiety suffers, however, getting enough sleep is crucial to good mental health as well. Therapy or anti-anxiety medications cannot undo the effects of a child with sleep deprivation. By adopting a healthy sleep routine, parents may see dramatic changes in the way their child deals with anxiety.