There are two issues to examine when trying to help a child who's suffering from nightmares:
- what to do during the nightmare, or just after the child awakens from one, and
- what to do in the child's daily life, before and after sleeptime, to help keep the bad dreams away.
Another way to say this is: there's crisis management and then there's crisis prevention. Therefore this article is divided into two parts, each containing five tips:
- First, five tips for helping manage a child's nightmares in the moment
- Then, five tips for helping a child to prevent nightmares in the future
Five Tips for Managing Nightmares
1. First, what NOT to do.
Whatever you do to help your child deal with nightmares, DO NOT ignore his cries in the middle of the night. If you do feel yourself becoming angry, frustrated, or impatient with him (such as for waking you up) take a few moments to breathe deeply and calm yourself before walking into the child's room. The one thing you don't want your child to feel at this critical moment is any sort of anger, frustration, impatience or other lack of support from you.
2. Go to your child immediately.
Stay alert to frightened waking in the middle of the night, which is easiest to do if your bedroom is close to your child’s, but if not, consider installing a baby monitor. As soon as you hear your child waking up frightened (screaming, crying, whimpering, etc.), go to him immediately and reassure him with comforting words, soothing him just as you would if he became frightened by an event during the day. You can employ any number of additional strategies for dealing with your child’s nightmares as they occur.
3. Comfort and calm your child.
Cuddle with your child. Gently stroke his head or back. And listen to your child’s fears with empathy, understanding that his fears are perfectly real, and should not be discounted under any circumstances. If your child wishes to discuss the nightmare, by all means encourage it. Then offer reassurance and comfort until your child has calmed down sufficiently to return to sleep. Keep in mind that if your child is afraid to go back to sleep, this may require your staying in the room until that time comes. If he is very frightened you will need to do whatever is required to help him calm down, possibly by reading a story or enjoying a simple, distracting, and—above all—relaxing activity together. Or perhaps lie down with your child or even let him join you in your bed. You may find it helpful to provide a nightlight in your child’s room, but make sure it isn’t casting scary shadows or you’ll defeat the purpose of its being there.
4. Remind your child that it was only a dream, but don't expect that to settle the issue.
Remember, however, as you sleepily grope for the right thing to say, telling a very young child, “It’s only a dream,” is unlikely to help since young children don’t yet understand that dreams aren’t real. With children who are at least three or four years old, though, it may be helpful to remind them that they were dreaming, although they, too, may still have difficulty understanding the nature of dreams.
5. Empower your child to take charge of her dreams.
Remind your child that he can think comforting thoughts to soothe himself as well. Suggest, for example, that he imagine the nightmare scenario ending in a happy manner. Don’t underestimate this method, for it helps teach your child to conquer his nightmares by actively imagining taking charge of the scene. This activity may also help him develop confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of proactive control over his responses to issues in daily life. As in waking conflict, unpleasant dreamtime scenarios typically include stages of threat and struggle. Whatever methods you follow, look at the nightmares as opportunity to help your child learn to use the innate tools he has for achieving resolution of his fears and confidence in his ability to face up to the frightening events of his life—both sleeping and waking.
Five Tips for Preventing Nightmares
l. Prevention is the best cure.
Prevention is the challenge, but also the best solution. Make bedtime a comfortable and safe experience for the child. Spend time with him at bedtime, reading and otherwise helping him to relax. A soothing bedtime ritual might also include a relaxing bath, a gentle massage, a warm mug of herbal (caffeine-free) tea, or even something as simple as being tucked in with regular hugs and kisses.
2. Discuss your child's dreams with her.
If your child experiences frequent nightmares (several a month), you may want to work with him during the day to try to determine what underlying fears may be causing them and then to try to resolve the trouble on that level. What is the child actually afraid of? Discussing the content of the dreams with the child can help shed insight into this critical question. Once you know what your child is afraid of - whether it's spiders or the possible death of a parent - you can then focus your attention on that fear, rather than the nightmare. Once the fear precipitating the nightmares goes away, it is entirely possible that the nightmares themselves will as well.
3. Examine your child's daily routine.
In addition to discussing the content of your child’s bad dreams in an effort to uncover their cause, it may also be worthwhile to review the content of your child’s daily life. Might there be something happening at home or school or elsewhere in your child’s daily life that could be causing enough distress to possibly lead to bad dreams? Also, monitor the television programs and movies your child watches and the video games your child plays so as to avoid those that might be too scary, violent, or otherwise disturbing.
4. Discuss your child's daily life with her.
By age 3, your child can begin to talk directly with you about any concerns and worries that could be triggering nightmares; then you can offer reassurance and guidance for dealing with those causes. Allow your child, at any age, to express feelings in appropriate ways. Try to assure your child that his feelings are understandable and normal. It is important to maintain open communication with him by expressing your willingness to discuss any concerns he may have, no matter how difficult or touchy the issue may be. If your child has difficulty expressing either the content of the nightmares or the concerns in waking life that could be causing them, consider exploring these issues in more creative and less explicit ways, for example by drawing or playacting.
5. Speak with a doctor if it seems necessary.
A nightmare disorder occurs when frequent and repeated nightmares continually disrupt a child’s sleep. If the nightmares continue even after you've employed measures to end them, it may be helpful to discuss your concern with your child’s doctor.
Dr. Tom Jackson is a psychiatrist who has specialized in the treatment of sleep disorders and anxiety for the past thirty years. He is the creator of the DreamChild™ Adventures audio programs and author of the companion guide, DreamChild™ Adventures in Relaxation and Sleep. He is currently Medical Director of a public mental health clinic and in private practice. For more information, please visit www.3DAudioMagic.com and www.ThomasJacksonMD.com