By John Blend
‘…. the darkest hour is always just before the dawn’
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Long Time Gone, Atlantic Records 1970
During this time of lockdown / pandemic many of us, regardless of age, are experiencing moments of anxiety and fear. Worries often become more prominent at night time – when we’re having nothing else to distract us; at such times, we may remain awake, hoping and trying to let go and sleep.
Here are a few ideas I have collected over time that may be of use for your kids or your clients’ children; it may be worth experimenting with a few different ways of tackling the problem.
Relaxing with the breath
I remember tracing alphabet figures and numbers in primary school using a pencil and tracing paper. Tracing these shapes was very soothing. Some of the shapes were adorned with little flourishes. This gave me the idea for a breathing exercise as children or adolescents are going to sleep. I find it helpful too. Here are the instructions:
Close your eyes and inhale gently through your nose for a count of 4; hold your breath for 5 and breathe out through your mouth for a count of 7. As you exhale, visualise the shape of each successive number: 1, 2, 3 etc.; the more ornate you can make each shape the better. Repeat this ten times.
A variation on this theme is to move your head in the shape of each number as you breathe out. Starting with one and ending at ten, repeat the process in batches of ten. Or if you prefer, breathe out into the shapes of the letters or characters of your alphabet: aramaic, ashuri, cyrillic, hanzi, latin, nagari and other scripts all work fine for this.
Curtains should aim to achieve a complete blackout – this helps eye muscles to fully relax. Keep the bedroom dark—or the child/adolescent can try wearing an eye mask. If darkness feels scary – looking at luminous stars placed nearby or on the bedroom ceiling can be an interesting way to get used to the change; a plug-in night light may help others acclimatise. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is helpful, also keeping devices (phones, IPad etc.) out of the bed.
Ionisers can help to dispel stimulating smells which otherwise may have the effect of keeping you awake. Essential oils placed in a tea light or via a plug-in aromatherapy diffuser offer natural calming: lavender for example promotes relaxation/rest. It can also be put in the bath or on pyjamas etc. and doesn’t stain.
There are many recordings available on CD and streaming services. Some popular ones feature ocean sounds, rainfall, ‘white noise’ or soothing voices that guide the listener through a process of progressive systematic desensitisation to aid relaxation and rest. Whatever type of sound you select probably needs to appeal specifically to the person who will use it: if possible ‘try before you buy’. Tinkly sounding ‘music box’ bells e.g. ‘Lullaby Mozart for babies’ are also popular and provide calming for some, regardless of age: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9uP1qP_a1g, also ‘Lullabies for Babies to Sleep’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyitLrD83y0, available online via streaming services or purchasable in CD format.
Some hypnotherapy sleep experiences can be found on YouTube. If constantly struggling with needing to block out distracting noise (snoring, traffic etc.), the new second-generation Bose Sleepbuds, though expensive, have won plaudits as one of the more efficient noise-cancelling systems.
Drinks with camomile may help de-stress; adding a cardamom pod to a warm drink too helps reduce restlessness and anxiety; inhaling the spice eases coughs, colds, respiratory problems…. Avoid alcohol, amphetamines, caffeine or a heavy meal before bed because they mess with sleep cycles.
Generally it helps if the bedroom is a little cooler than the main living area; in some city environments etc. a dehumidifier or a humidifier can help with excess/ insufficient moisture.[From editor: information on the best temperature for sleep see National Sleep Foundation (NSF) https://www.thensf.org/ or a SleepFoundation.org website: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/bedroom-environment/best-temperature-for-sleep]
The feel and weight of night clothes and bedding can be important; generally children and young people like to choose their own. Weighted blankets are gaining popularity in the UK with some young people and adults. Quilts and eiderdowns from yesteryear, together with bedspreads have been making a comeback too. Giving your child a toe massage with base oil (almond etc.) can relieve tension and helps promote closeness. Hot water bottles, a favourite doll, teddy bear, or real animal comforts (cat, dog) may also help settle and soothe.
Slowing down and managing busy thoughts
Save the last hour of the day for non-work or school related things that let your brain cool down. Turn off the TV. If your head is buzzing write down your thoughts and tomorrow’s ‘To do’ list and let it go….
Managing existential fears
Guatemalan worry dolls are attractive to some younger children – a set of six mini-dolls in a colourful little bag can be inexpensively purchased online. Encourage the child to confide a worry to one or more of the dolls and place them under the pillow.
Other children may enjoy using a dream catcher – a Native American concept: the ‘catcher’ placed by the bed head reputedly captures ‘bad’ dreams and lets ‘good ‘ones through….
The following exercise can also be helpful with children who experience anxiety: Ask your child at bedtime the following series of repetitive questions: ‘What do you want to do in 3 days? In 3 weeks? 3 months? In three years? Thirty years? Sixty?’ Just listen and allow your child’s responses, don’t advise or comment. This promotes letting go whilst also suggesting the notion of a future that lies ahead.
Insomnia/ difficulty ‘dropping off’ to sleep
Instead of you reading to your child – have the child read a story aloud to YOU – ideally one that’s not too stirring. Ask him/her questions about what happened and why etc. This develops memory and focus whilst also helping the brain to become naturally tired and surrender to sleep.
Serial Sevens is a counting exercise. The child or teen starts from, say, 365 and keeps subtracting seven (or another number) until they drift off……… similarly one can try saying the alphabet backwards from midway etc.
It often helps when a parent is able to provide reassurance and comfort after a child has had a nightmare. S/he may want to relate the dream to you; your listening to what happened may bring relief or the young person may wish to add a different ending. If the child brings their dream/nightmare to gestalt therapy/counselling they can of course explore this from many perspectives and possibly re-enact it (‘be the evil giant!’). As the child or adolescent is encouraged to find the meaning of the dream for themselves (i.e. without interpretation) they may recover a sense of agency and purpose. Fritz Perls wrote about dreams in Gestalt Therapy Verbatim; Violet Oaklander gives an example of working with a 4 year old here: http://vsof.org/articles/Dreams.pdf.
Serial nightmares: Some children or teenagers experience recurring bad dreams. It may help them to practice imagining their thumb is a TV remote: they can press down hard against the forefinger and ‘change channel’. This is something they may be able to do for themselves next time that bad dream comes along…
Here’s wishing us all good sleep during these challenging times – hope some of these measures are useful!
Jon Blend MA, Adult, Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist (UKCP & EAP reg.), Clinical Supervisor, Trainer & Lifemusician. Faculty IATE (Wellbeing), Principal: Gazebo Training School, London.
www.gacp.co.uk – Oaklander model child therapy face-to-face training courses – details on the website: revised dates will be posted when Covid-19 rules permit.
‘A baby learns from struggle, and with each mastery experience develops the strength to deal with frustration.’