What are mornings like in your household?
For some children and teenagers, mornings can be really hard to navigate, and they may find themselves in a state of anxiety thinking about the day and tasks ahead.
Through this article I’ll explain what morning anxiety might look like.
I’ll present effective ways to support your knowledge and understanding of how to deal with morning anxiety in your child, helping your child to wake up feeling less anxious and feel able to cope with the rest of the day.
What is Morning Anxiety?
It’s normal that people experience anxiety. It’s our body and brain’s way of keeping us alert and it can actually improve performance.
Morning anxiety is waking up with anxious thoughts and feelings. Sometimes the feelings are physical, emotional or both.
Sometimes, children experience morning anxiety (this is not a medical term). This can be occasional or sporadic and is usually reactive to something that’s going on for them in the present moment.
But if your child is in a high-state of anxiety for a long time and they feel like this most mornings, it can interfere with everyday tasks and functioning.
Anxiety in the Morning: Why Does it Happen?
Here are just a few possible reasons for morning anxiety in children:
- Going to bed feeling anxious: If your child goes to bed feeling anxious, those thoughts may have contributed to a fitful night’s sleep, and may still be lurking in the morning.
- Starting a new school and making new friends: New environments and faces can be overwhelming. Children may feel anxious about fitting in and meeting expectations.
- Low blood sugar: Your child’s blood sugar may be low in the mornings until they eat breakfast. If blood sugar stays low, the body can trigger an emergency fight or flight response. The aim of this is to help an individual find food quickly. However, fight or flight is associated with very high anxiety, often panic attacks, and it is a horrible feeling.
- Overstimulation from screen time before bed or upon waking: If your child was overstimulated by too much blue light from electronic devices before bed, not only will it cause them to have less of the deep sleep they need, but there may still be too much cortisol floating around in their bodies – see below.
- Worry about exams or tasks at school: The thought of tests or assignments can be daunting. This academic stress can make mornings particularly stressful.
- Cortisol peaking in the mornings: Cortisol, the stress hormone, naturally peaks in the early morning. This can exacerbate any underlying anxiety.
- Bad dreams or nightmares: Bad dreams or nightmares may leave a lasting feeling of anxiety or a general sense of dread that something bad is going to happen. Bad dreams are often the body’s way of processing deep thoughts or fears.
- Anticipation of a big event or new situation: When something significant is on the horizon, it’s natural to feel anxious. The unknown aspects can make mornings harder. This may be a school residential trip, sports day, or moving to a new year group. These events may seem so huge to your child, that their day feels like a huge hurdle to climb. First thing in the morning, this can feel absolutely overwhelming.
Cortisol & Morning Anxiety in Children
If your child is experiencing stressful situations or excessive worry, higher levels of cortisol will be circulating in their body. This contributes to higher levels of alertness and hypervigilance.
It leads to physical symptoms associated with associated surges of adrenaline, such as increased heart rate.
High cortisol levels keep children’s their bodies on high alert, causing a cycle of stress and worry, and meaning it can be hard for your child to feel relaxed.
Raised cortisol also causes inflammation and long-term it is very bad for general health.
Cortisol is at its peak level during the first hour of waking (the “cortisol awakening response”). If it is even higher than normal, some children start off their day in a high alert state with their system feeling overloaded. Anxious thoughts can be present before they even start their morning routine.
Morning Anxiety Symptoms in Your Child
Feeling anxious or stressed about the day ahead can influence or determine what happens for the rest of the day. It can impact things like motivation, mood, productivity and concentration.
Look out for signs that your child may be finding mornings difficult.
Symptoms of Morning Anxiety Can Include:
- Racing thoughts before their eyes even open.
- Ruminating about all the possible problems and difficulties ahead of them. Ruminating usually stems from distorted thoughts about the reality of something or a situation that they are facing.
- Anticipatory feelings of dread or panic. These can lead to physical symptoms such as sweating, nausea, racing heart or panic attacks. Physical health and mental health are closely linked, so looking at the best way to support both is vital.
- They don’t feel like getting up. They may come up with ways to avoid having to get up or get ready, instead preferring to stay at home. This can lead to conflict and often, anger.
- General irritability, for example snapping at you when you ask them to get ready.
- Trouble focusing or concentrating on the task in hand, feeling overwhelmed or stressed.
- Feeling restless or experiencing tension in their muscles.
Breaking the Cycle of Morning Anxiety in Children: 13 Strategies
When thinking about how to deal with morning anxiety, I recommend these 13 strategies. Try one or two rather than attempting to do them all at once.
Stick to the strategies for at least 2 weeks until they become habit, to help reduce your child’s anxiety and enable them to cope better in the mornings.
1. Implement a Morning Routine to Minimize Morning Anxiety
Having a prescribed morning routine can help to lower the anticipatory anxiety a child might have about mornings.
Talk together about what routine would work best factoring in practical considerations (eating breakfast, brushing teeth, getting to school).
A visual planner can support children in how to deal with morning anxiety by helping them understand what to expect.
You can help by focusing on the important tasks and making the planner steps achievable. (There may be some tasks that require more parental help than others).
2. Morning Anxiety in Children: Work on Good Sleep Hygiene
Good sleep hygiene and enough sleep is vital for the brain & body to wake up ready for the day.
Anxiety symptoms can feel more intense first thing in the morning so it’s important to have enough sleep which is restorative for the body and mind. Sleep hygiene is a term which means doing things in a routine way that will give your brain the correct cues to release melatonin, the sleep hormone.
Here is a guide to the hours of sleep your child will typically require at different ages.
|Age Group||Recommended Hours of Sleep Per Day|
|Preschool 3-5 years||10-13 (including naps)|
|School Age 6-12 years||9-12|
|Teens 13-18 years||8-10|
Help your child relax before they fall asleep. Reading or listening to a meditation recording can help.
Focus on calming the nervous system so they can fall asleep in the most relaxed state possible.
3. Morning Anxiety: Be Well Prepared For Busy Mornings
Get bags ready for school or activities the night before.
This might include getting a school bag or PE kit ready, preparing a lunch box or making sure items needed for a weekend trip or visit are organised.
You and your child will feel so much better knowing that these tasks are done.
4. Eat Breakfast to Reduce Morning Anxiety in Children
A protein-filled breakfast will help regulate low blood sugar and avoid the body going into fight or flight. Beans on toast is perfect, or try porridge with a spoonful of ground almonds added.
5. Communicate With School About Morning Anxiety in Your Child
Communicate well with school to directly address any sources of anxiety.
Don’t be afraid to push for strong communication for the sake of your child.
6. Deal With Worries Well Before Bedtime the Night Before
When the day has finished and quiet and calm descends, some children’s brains actually get busy with lots of thoughts and worries.
Have a time set aside to talk about worries well before the bedtime routine starts, even if the worries can’t be resolved there and then, talking about them often alleviates the worry and causes it to shrink.
Our article on helping your child cope with worry contains several brilliant strategies you can try with your child.
7. Try Journaling For Morning Anxiety in Children
Writing before bed can be a really helpful way of transferring thoughts and worries from our minds to a safe place on paper.
Journaling can help to stop interference when your child is falling or trying to stay asleep.
Your child may prefer to journal through art or dictate an audio journal if writing is tricky for them.
8. Increase Physical Activity (But Not at Night) to Help Prevent Morning Anxiety
Exercise helps lower cortisol levels and adrenaline. Cortisol is naturally higher in the mornings to help us feel alert. Our bodies hold emotional stress, so getting moving helps alleviate feelings of stress.
Physical activity releases endorphins (the body’s natural pain relief and happiness booster), helping to alleviate the anxiety and make you feel calmer.
Morning is the perfect time to engage in physical anxiety and can be a huge player in minimizing morning anxiety in children.
Make sure your child doesn’t engage in intense exercise at night as there is some evidence that this can overstimulate your child when they should be winding down for sleep.
Here are some great ways to increase physical activities In The Mornings
- Try walking to school (or part way)
- Have a bounce on a trampoline before breakfast.
- Walk the dog together.
- Join sports clubs or hobbies that include physical activity elements.
- Try Yoga – Yoga relaxes you, to help you sleep better.
Learn more about the benefits of yoga in this article by Chrissy Longley, Founder and teacher at Joyful Hearts Yoga.
9. Morning Anxiety in Children: Rethink the Alarm Clock
A help or a hindrance?
Waking up abruptly can cause higher blood pressure and heart rate and might actually add to children’s stress levels.
Using a snooze button commonly leaves us feeling more tired as the extra few minutes only allow you to experience a light sleep, so it’s probably not a good idea.
Instead, go in and wake your child gently at the same time each day (with adjustments on the weekend and holidays possibly). Ensure the wake-up time gives them plenty of time to get going without feeling under time pressure.
10. Avoid Social Media First-Thing to Help With Morning Anxiety
Take time to relax and wake up before checking social media on the phone. It can be overstimulating and overwhelming, which contributes to morning anxiety.
11. Plan Self-Care (Yours and Your Child’s)
Take a warm shower in the morning if time allows, and practice regular self-care at other times.
Eat well, looking after your restorative rest, nutrition and get moving! Just a few minutes a day can be life-changing. You’re seeking to build healthy new lifestyle habits and I recommend James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. This book helps you build micro-habits rather than getting overwhelmed by large, unattainable goals.
12. Morning Anxiety in Children: Practice Deep Breathing With Your Child
If your child is feeling anxious or overwhelmed in the morning, get them to practice deep slow breaths.
This will help ground them and bring down anxiety levels.
Use the video below.
13. Diet as a Contributor to Morning Anxiety in Children
Research suggests a link between diet and anxiety. In particular, a “mediterranean” diet full of whole fruits and vegetables and sources of omega 3s is recommended.
A diet high in processed foods and refined sugar is associated with poor mental health. Try to ensure your child has a range protein, omega-3 fats (found in fatty fish), fruit and vegetables and foods with low saturated fat and refined carbohydrate content.
You can read more about diet and its effect on children’s behaviour and wellbeing in the book They Are What You Feed Them by Dr Alex Richardson.
Morning Anxiety in Children: Case Study (Kimberley)
Kimberley is an 11-year-old struggling with early morning anxiety. Each day, she wakes in the grip of anxiety, making mornings an uphill battle.
As the school bell approaches, her anxiety intensifies, often spiraling into full-blown panic attacks. She also feels sick every morning before school.
The ongoing challenges of morning anxiety attacks and nausea have taken a toll on Kimberley’s school attendance over the last few months, causing her to arrive late frequently.
Here’s how Kimberley’s parents used specific strategies to help her overcome morning anxiety:
- Establishing a Morning Routine: Kimberley’s parents recognized the importance of a structured morning routine. They created a consistent schedule and Kimberley turned it into a poster which she put on the wall. This routine provided Kimberley with a sense of predictability each morning.
- Dealing with Worries the Night Before: To address Kimberley’s worries, her parents encouraged her to talk about her concerns well before bedtime. This proactive approach allowed them to address any anxieties or fears well in advance, reducing the chances of early morning panic.
- Increasing Physical Activity in the Morning: Kimberley’s parents incorporated physical activity into her mornings. They encouraged her to bounce on the trampoline for a few minutes before breakfast. This helped release tension and anxiety, making her more relaxed and ready for the day ahead.
- Practicing Deep Breathing: As part of her morning routine, Kimberley and her mum practiced slow breathing exercises together. They would pretend that their tummies were balloons, filling the tummy like a balloon with the in-breath. Then they would release the air very slowly. This helped Kimberley feel more in control of her morning anxiety.
- Eating a Nutritious Breakfast: Recognizing the importance of a healthy diet, Kimberley’s parents began to ensure she had a nutritious breakfast. This provided her with the energy she needed to face the day and helped stabilize her mood.
Over several weeks of consistent implementation of these strategies, Kimberley’s morning anxiety gradually improved. Her mornings became less chaotic and filled with panic.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Morning Anxiety in Children: When Should You Seek Professional Help?
There are lots of self-help techniques that you can try, but it may be appropriate to ask for some professional help, particularly if your child is waking up feeling anxious most days and this has been going on for a long time.
Many children with an anxiety disorder wake up feeling anxious straight away and will probably require some intervention and support in understanding the underlying causes.
Their thoughts and beliefs can sometimes lead to behaviours which perpetuate the morning anxiety.
Your doctor can help you determine whether a referral for an assessment by a mental health professional would be appropriate. In the UK this could be a referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). You can also find a qualified private mental health professional.
This article will help you identify what type of professional you need, and how to find them.
Effective therapeutic treatment pathways include counselling and psychological therapy such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). Therapy can support your child’s mental health by teaching them to understand and gently adapt unhelpful or negative thoughts.
For example, the thought “you’re going to wake up feeling anxious the next day because you woke up feeling anxious today”, is not a helpful thought and is not necessarily true.
Summary: How to Deal with Morning Anxiety in Children
Everyday life throws up all sorts of challenges, hurdles and new experiences for children. In the mornings this can feel insurmountable for some children.
When morning anxiety is present, try and focus on the practical suggestions in this article. You and your child will gradually start to feel more in control.
Remember, progress may be gradual. With time, mornings can become a smoother, more positive part of the day, setting the stage for a successful and fulfilling day at school and beyond.
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
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