Ten ways to help your primary school-aged child relax and sleep well

Understanding how to slow down and relax is a very important skill in today’s over-scheduled, over-stressed world. This does not just apply to adults and high-schoolers, but also to primary school aged children. Below I make some suggestions for helping your primary school aged child to relax, sleep well and deal with anxiety.

These suggestions are ones that my family has tried and found to be useful. You and your family may have your own techniques. I’d love to know what works for you.

Relax
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1. Get outside

If your child needs to relax, the first approach I suggest is to increase their time outside.

We all know it, don’t we? Time outside is good for us. Study after study corroborates this statement. But, when we are planning our days and weeks, how much importance do we actually assign to being outside?

Time outside in a natural environment has been shown to have benefits for cognitive development and health (including mental, emotional and physical health), especially for children with AD/HD characteristics.

Do you need to hear more? “Psychological benefits include reduced stress and anxiety, improvements to mood, increased perceived wellbeing, improved concentration and attention, and cognitive restoration.” That’s from the MindMatters website.

Of course we have to minimise risks by being sensible about sun protection, airborne allergens, insect bites and (in the Northern Beaches of Sydney) ticks. But, if you think your child needs to relax more, maybe do a trial fortnight when you are spending significant amounts of time outside, and see if that makes a difference.

 

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2. Cut down on scheduled time

Unstructured time to play can help your child to relax.

Many of us depend on our cars to get from one place to another. As a consequence, we schedule one activity after the other, driving in between activities without a break. But what if you learned that unstructured play was actually better for your child than filling all their time with scheduled activities?

See this summary article for the reasons why your child should be allowed unstructured time to play.

Don’t have time to read the article? Unstructured play improves memory, allows brain cells to grow, increases attention during academic tasks, aids mathematical and language development and promotes problem-solving, self-regulation and reasoning.

More time to play in childhood has also been linked to higher self-esteem and social success in adulthood.

This really does mean unstructured time – sports training and physical education classes are not the same as free play.

Here’s an article by Australian researchers about the benefits of unsupervised outdoor play.

How much time does your child actually have to play without being supervised or directed? Are there activities you could cut out, if even just for one term, to allow them this time?

 

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3. Cut down on car use. Walk or cycle instead.

Walking and cycling can also help your child to relax. When you walk or cycle with your child, you are spending time together outside, you are gently exercising, they can talk to you with reduced time pressure, and you both have the opportunity to notice things that you might not have noticed otherwise.

I remember with fondness when I used to walk my son to pre-school along Manly’s East Esplanade. We noticed and discussed different things each day. A highlight in the spring time was spotting a gull’s nest and watching the baby gulls grow and develop.

I know it can be hard to cut down on car usage. In my family we have two ‘car-free days’ a week. The other three week days are pretty full on and it is hard to work out how we could manage them without a car. Eventually, however, I’d like to invert that and end up with just two car days a week.

And there’s an extra, but hugely important bonus when you take this approach – you cut down on greenhouse gas emissions too.

Mind Full, or Mindful? by Heidi Forbes Öste on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/forbesoste/15655214702
Mind Full, or Mindful? by Heidi Forbes Öste on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/forbesoste/15655214702

4. Relax Kids

Mindfulness, positive affirmations and yoga can also help your child to relax. Relax Kids coaches run classes across the world that combine these approaches. One of my sons attended classes when we lived in England and we all found them hugely beneficial. If you don’t have a Relax Kids coach near you, you can shop for their products here. Or look here for downloadable printables specifically for relaxation. We have a couple of their CDs and have also downloaded short guided relaxations onto our computer.

Look out for the Relax Kids 21 day program for families, with an exercise, an affirmation and a tip for each day. You can follow Relax Kids on Facebook or follow their blog. Sometimes they have free offers, especially around Christmas time.

Sleep well

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5. Exercise, but not right before bedtime.

In order to sleep well, your child needs to be physically tired. Recommendations are that children should have at least 1 hour of physical exercise per day. Many children get far more than that. Some don’t. Anecdotally, I certainly notice it is harder to get my children to sleep on the days when they have been inside and less active than usual.

But be aware that exercise releases cortisol and if you do this right before bedtime it will keep your child’s heart and brain racing just as they are supposed to be winding down.

My Bedtime Bear, by Russell Tucker on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/russell300d/267199497 CC by-nd 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode
My Bedtime Bear, by Russell Tucker on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/russell300d/267199497 CC by-nd 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode

6. Bright lights in the morning, dim lights before bed

Manipulate your child’s daily routine to work with, not against their circadian rhythm. Our sensitivity to light reduces as we grow older, but for children and young adults the circadian rhythm is very closely linked with exposure to bright light. You want bright lights in the morning  (ideally daylight) but dimmer lights in the evening to aid in the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that is closely linked with sleep-wake cycles. In people with normal sleep cycles, it is produced in the evening and peaks around 3 am.

Blue lights, such as those emitted by computer screens, smart phones, tablets and LEDs, have been shown to have a stronger effect on suppressing melatonin production. Try to turn off all these devices at least an hour before your child’s bedtime (and preferably two or more) and reduce lights in the bedroom before sleep.

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Sleeping girl image used with permission from http://www.dinosnores.com.au

 

7. Dinosnores

The Dinosnores sleepy stories have been great for my children. The first time I played ‘Dragon’ to my youngest son he was asleep in 10 minutes. I like these better for bedtime than other shorter relaxations, as they are specifically designed for bedtimes.

The Dinosnores stories take your child through techniques that are known to work, such as deepening their breathing, and rotating awareness around the body.

For each CD or download, there is a 20-30 minute story followed by roughly 30 minutes of ambient sounds. This is great for children who do not sleep very deeply, as the ambient sounds can encourage them back to sleep without them waking fully.

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8. Relax melodies

This app for smart phones is popular in my house as the children can create their own combination of sounds for falling asleep. I usually leave it playing on my phone while I creep out of the room, then retrieve my phone before I go to bed myself.

Don't worry, Heather by David Mellis on Flickr. No modifications. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mellis/213058932 CC by 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
Don’t worry, Heather by David Mellis on Flickr. No modifications. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mellis/213058932 CC by 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

9. Acknowledge your child’s worries

All these techniques are not going to work if your child has worries going round and round in their head. For both adults and children, it helps to name your worries before trying to sleep. This doesn’t necessarily mean you solve the problems, but at least you are acknowledging them. Your child might like to whisper their problems to some worry dolls. Or you could write down worries and then throw the paper away.

You and your child can discuss their concerns about the next day and plan what you are going to do.

You can also finish the day on a positive note by thinking of three things that you are thankful for, and maybe writing these positive things in a diary.

Anxiety

As I said in a previous blog post, these suggestions do not take the place of professional help, but my children have found the program below very helpful for understanding and dealing with anxiety.

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10. GoZen!

This program uses animated videos to explain to children (and their parents) how their nervous system works and to give them tools to deal with anxiety. The tools are based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) but the language is suitable for children. For example, instead of ‘Negative Automatic Thoughts’ we talk about ‘Thought Holes’. As children start to identify what is going on with their thoughts, they can learn how to address these thoughts and therefore change the way they feel and behave. We have found GoZen! very helpful in providing a shared language for talking about our thoughts and reactions to certain situations.

How relaxed is your high-school child?

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By Wilson Dias/ABr – http://www.agenciabrasil.gov.br/media/imagens/2007/08/26/1425WD9825.jpg/view, CC BY 3.0 br, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6875952

I recently started tutoring and my Year 11 students are coming up to their yearly exams. It has struck me that, as much as I can help with the academic side of things, many students also need help with non-academic issues, in particular looking after their general health. This includes

 

– sleeping well

– eating healthy foods

-exercising regularly

-tackling anxiety

In future blog posts am going to cover sleep, diet and exercise in more detail and explain why they are important, plus some posts about revising for exams and about dealing with exam anxiety and maths anxiety.

Today I just want to share a few apps and general approaches dealing with relaxation, sleep and anxiety that I have found helpful myself, or my children have found helpful.

Relaxation

Scientific research has shown that test or exam results are not just linked to cognitive ability and skills learned, but also to the level of anxiety in the student prior to the exam. See, for example, research papers here, here and here.) A certain amount of anxiety is helpful but if students are overly anxious, relaxation and mindfulness techniques used right before the exam can help (see this paper).

Mindfulness is a particular approach to meditation where you quietly observe what is going on, in a non-judgmental way. It can help children to slow down, reduce stress and regulate their emotions. It may take a little bit of practice so I’m not recommending your teenager starts the day before their first exam. But, with practice, relaxation techniques like this can produce measurable improvements in test results.

1. Headspace subscription

The Headspace app teaches you how to practice mindfulness, in short 10 minute sessions. It is available for smart phones and on PCs. I tried their first ten sessions, called ‘Take 10(TM)’ and was impressed. I liked the English male voice and the little animations to support what the voice was telling you. Once you have done the first ten sessions you can subscribe to have access to the rest of their Foundation Course and also specific meditations dealing with, for example, health, performance and relationships.

You can sign up any time for the first ten meditations. But Headspace currently have a deal of 0.99 USD for three months subscription. A three month subscription would usually cost 12.95 USD per month. The deal expires on 8 Sep (US time zone) .

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Image taken from the Headspace website http://www.headspace.com

Click here if you want to get this offer. I don’t have any affiliate links to Headspace, I’m just advertising the offer because I think it’s a great deal and worth trying. As with any of these regular payments please take suitable steps to cancel the payments should you want to stop the subscription after the discounted period is over.

Australian readers – note that although they share the same name and have similar aims, this business is not linked with the Headspace service provided for young people across Australia.

2. Simply being

This is aSimply Being guided meditation from Meditation Oasis (R) that you can download as an app for iOS or Android devices. You can choose a 5 minute meditation or go up to 30 minutes in 5 minute intervals. There are a few choices of background music or ambient sounds and you can also choose to continue the background audio for up to 2 hours or on an endless loop. I frequently use this app myself to provide a little bit of calm in the middle of my busy day.

All the Meditation Oasis (R) apps are inexpensive and you can also try their free app ‘Take a Break‘ to see if this approach works for you.

3. Yoga classes

Another option is for your child to try a yoga class. Many yoga teachers offer classes for teens and some may even offer special classes in the period leading up to exams. Be aware that, unlike the first two suggestions on this list, yoga is aligned to a particular philosophy and this may put some people off.

4. Yoga nidra

You don’t have to attend classes to experience the benefits of yoga. ‘Yoga nidra’ is a type of guided meditation where you follow audio instructions to still your body and mind. Yoga nidra uses tools that have been shown to reduce stress and aid relaxation, such as rotation of awareness around the body, and setting positive goals for yourself. Yoga practitioners report that during the process of yoga nidra, physiological markers such as brain activity and heart rate slow to the rates you would expect during deep sleep. A few scientific studies have verified some of these physiological changes during yoga nidra meditation.

To try this for yourself, just search on the internet for a yoga nidra recording. I often use this one by Kylie Terraluna. Note that the audio instructions will usually get you to wake up at the end, unless you choose a recording that is specifically aimed at getting you to sleep.

Sleep

I plan to write a further blog post about sleep, how it works (as far as scientists know at the moment) and why it is important. I know from personal and familial experience that if you have problems getting to sleep or staying asleep, this is not easy to fix. So I am not saying that what I offer is a ‘cure-all’. Again just offering some suggestions that I have personally found useful to help me to get to sleep at times when I am feeling anxious.

1. Relax melodies (also Relax Oriental)Relax Melodies

This free app for smart phones lets you choose a combination of ambient sounds to help you go off to sleep. You can vary the volume of each sound separately, should you wish to, and you can set time limits for the audio.

My children also like the Relax Oriental app, but I personally don’t find the sounds so relaxing on this one.

2. Relax and Rest

This app from Meditation Oasis (R) is another that I frequently use myself. It has a small selection of background audio and you can choose the length of time for both the meditation and the background.

3. Yoga Nidra for sleep

I like Jennifer Piercy’s meditation from Do yoga with me. You can pay for an audio download or play the audio over the internet for free.

Anxiety

This is a huge issue and any suggestions that I make here do not take the place of consulting with a registered professional about your child’s specific issues. I am also going to write about maths anxiety more specifically later.

These approaches to anxiety have helped within my family.

1. GoZen

GoZen offers animated videos and interactive books to teach your child about their nervous system and how to apply techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Many of the animations are based in high school. My younger children found this program very helpful and they now have a language to talk about what’s going on in their brain and body (for example, the videos introduce the idea of ‘thought holes’ for negative automatic thoughts.) Your teenager might find that this approach is a bit young for them but you can watch the first video on their home page and see what you think. The family program is 97 USD for one year, and you can also follow the blog to get free suggestions on how to help children with anxiety.

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Image from the GoZen blog

2. Cool Kids

This program was developed by psychologists at Macquarie University and is implemented both at the university and by psychologists across Australia. They have been trialing an online version of the program but are not taking any new children for this trial until January 2017.

3. Mind over Mood

Go Zen and Cool Kids both use CBT but present it in a child-friendly way and use child-friendly language. This workbook is aimed at adults and applies CBT to depression, anxiety and anger. In the book you will find many useful exercises to do over several weeks or months. You will start to recognise what is going on with your brain and emotions and learn about how you can take practical steps to reduce the effect on your life. Have a look at the first chapter of the book here (pdf) and you can learn more about the book on the Mind over Mood website.

 

Those are my ideas for helping your child with relaxation, sleep and anxiety. What do you think? Do these approaches work for you? Would they work for your child? Do you have other suggestions? I would love to see your comments.