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Coping with Life Transitions that Can Impact Sleep in Children

We all experience various transitions throughout our lives. Whether planned or unpredictable, transitions can be challenging because they force us to let go of the familiar and face the future with a feeling of vulnerability. This is true more than ever as the COVID-19 pandemic creates new challenges for families and schools.

New teachers, new schedule, new peers, and new classrooms all while most likely following safety protocols required by the school. Not to mention that many school systems, public and private, maybe vacillating between in-person and virtual school based on the presence of COVID-19 among students. Often, the fear of the unknown and ambivalence are what can make coping with transitions the hardest. Fortunately, children are resilient and capable of coping with change.

“Fortunately, children are resilient and capable of coping with change.”

Dr. Cynthia ward

Common signs and symptoms that parents should look for that could indicate that your child is not coping well with change and transitions may include: feeling anxious, irritable, angry, nervous, worried, moody, and upset more days than not. Parents may also find that their child is more withdrawn, refuses to go to school, or does not want to attend social activities. An increase in physical complaints (e.g., headache, pain, nausea, bellyaches, and changes in heart rate) could also occur.

Sleep may also be negatively impacted. Some kids could experience restless sleep, difficulty falling asleep, or staying asleep. As a result, they may wake up tired or fatigued. In younger kids, you may observe outbursts, meltdowns, or tantrums. Eating habits may also change by eating too much or not enough.

So, what can parents do to offer support during times of transition? Here are some tips that may help:

Model calmness. Be aware of your own anxiety and monitor what you say in front of your child about the transition. If your child observes you or other individuals be overwhelmed, they may inadvertently become more distressed. Additionally, if they hear you talking negatively or worried about the transition, this can reinforce more concerns for them.

Encourage your child to share and express their feelings about change. Listen to them. Acknowledge their concerns and validate their feelings. Saying something like, “I can see you’re overwhelmed. Let me help you with that. Can we talk?” or “I know this isn’t easy for you. I can see how much you are trying though and I am proud of you.”

Sometimes when kids are really worried, they may benefit from a strategy called worry time. This is usually an allotted time during the day where your child can freely talk about their worries. Worry should not exceed 15-minutes, should be during the day, and not occur in your child’s bedroom. Your job as a parent is to listen and provide. The goal is not necessarily to fix things but to simply allow a time period to express worries. You can also get creative and have them write down some of their worries onto a piece of paper and put the worries physically in a box that gets shut at the end of their time and put away

Prepare. When possible, try to prepare for your transition. This can help lessen anticipatory anxiety and provide a sense of control.

Set reasonable expectations. Unmet expectations can create further frustration or stress.

Routine, routine, routine! This is important for people of all ages, but especially kids. Routine, structure, predictability, and use of a schedule can help provide a sense of control and consistency. It can also improve your focus, organization, and productivity. Encourage your child to go to bed at a regular time and wake up early. Weekends should be similar, and kids should avoid sleeping in or staying up late. A good rule of thumb is an hour deviation from your weekday sleep and wake routine. It may also help to organize backpacks, binders, lunch boxes, and clothing outfits the night before to help make the mornings go smoothly.

Mindset is everything! Check your self-talk. Is it positive or negative? Negative thinking patterns like “I don’t like my teacher” or “my homework is too hard” can lead to negative feelings and behavior. Reframing a difficult situation and focusing on things that are going well can help support coping. Also, remember times in the past when transitions have been hard and recall the things that helped during that time!

Set small goals that are feasible to meet as opposed to feeling like you need to fix or solve everything related to the transition. Ask yourself, “what is one small thing that I can do right now that can help?”

Seek the support of others. Talking to a friend, family member or other trusted adult can help. Connecting and having regular check-ins with the school counselor or psychologist is a good resource as well.

Engage in self-care activities. This will look different for everyone, but some activities could include taking a walk or warm bath, riding a bike, coloring, drawing, writing in a journal, or playing a board game.

Give yourself and your child grace. Change is difficult and transitions can be hard. Your child will likely have good days and bad days. This variability is normal and to be expected. Practice self-compassion and remember that each day is a new day.

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