In my “Why Do Nightmares Happen?” blog series, I’ve talked about what nightmares are and what you can do about them. First, I covered the specifics of why nightmares happen. Last time, I talked about techniques that work with both adults and children.
I think it’s important to have a look today at things parents can do to help children who suffer from regular nightmares. There are some techniques that work on both adults and children, but it’s also important to remember that kids are going through a different experience than adults who have nightmares. They may still be working out the difference between waking reality and dreams, and the vivid experience of a bad dream feels very real to a little one.
Children between the ages of 5 and 8 years old are most likely to have nightmares. Their experience and world-view is expanding to include potentially disturbing things, from death to serious injury to issues like divorce and moving to new locations. It’s a big deal to a kid – there’s a lot for these little ones to process as they learn to deal with social situations, life’s injustices, and the world around them. The brain uses dreams to help children (and adults) process and store information while they’re safe in bed.
If your child is having nightmares:
- Check the bedroom. Check the bedroom for “monsters” if your little one is afraid. Do it calmly, quickly and quietly to avoid an all-out, all-lights-on monster hunt and get your child back to sleep in good time.
- Physically comfort your little one. A child who is experiencing a fight-or-flight response will respond to a physical touch. Hug your child or curl up in bed with her for a minute. If you decide bring the child into your own bed for comfort after a bad dream, be aware that you may be starting a habit that can be hard to break.
- Use a special object to calm your child. A favorite doll or stuffed animal can help a child calm down after sleep. Or create a bracelet or toy that your child can use specifically after bad dreams as a “protector.” Some parents have had luck bringing home a new stuffed animal specifically to be a guardian or comforter after bad dreams, or when a child feels afraid of the dark.
Older children can have nightmares, too, of course. If a tween or teen is suffering from repeated or recurring nightmares, consider the possibility that they’ve been through a traumatic event that you don’t know about.
Keep in mind that occasional nightmares are normal, so don’t stress if your growing children go through rough patches as they learn about the world. But if there seems to be a pattern of bad dreams that lasts over months, consider consulting a specialist.