Helping your Child with Nightmares (and Setting the Stage for Sweet Dreams)

bearinbedFor any parent who has awoken in the night to their child’s frightened cries, the experience can leave you feeling powerless and bewildered. Although hugs of comfort are given in the moment, often these parents seek further information – what can they do next time and how can they help their child. For that reason, I wanted to put some information out for parents whose children experience nightmares.  Please read on, and try out any ideas below that might fit for your situation and for your child.

Scary dreams can be very common in children and adolescents. And while these nightmares can be a part of normal development, they can also be a result of stressful or traumatic experiences, family conflict, and parental anxiety. Understanding the reasons for such dreams does not make it any easier when it comes to comforting your child after a nightmare. The detailed information below can help you respond to your child during their moment of fear after a nightmare and also help you to set up a bedtime routine that encourages and supports sweet dreams.

Supporting your Child after a Nightmare:

Listening and being supportive of your child after a nightmare is important: it helps reduce their fear and also enhances the secure attachment relationship you have with your child. Try not to force your child to talk about their dream, and do not be dismissive of their dream or their fear. Provide reassurance of their safety. Depending on your child, it can be helpful to get out of bed and have a glass of water. The process of moving into a different room to have the water (moving the body), can serve to dissipate the fear and assist the child in changing their focus of attention.

Once your child has settled somewhat, you could employ her imagination to create a relaxing scene, or images of protection to facilitate relaxation, settling, and to help her fall back to sleep. If you notice that she isn’t easily letting go of the dream, you could help her imagine a different ending to it.

For some children with very vivid nightmares, drawing out what they remember (or scribbling it) and then destroying the paper can create a sense of containment, completion, and empowerment. If you choose to use this method with your child:

  • don’t have your child create the picture in the bed where they had the dream and are expected to go back to sleep in
  • don’t ask questions about what was drawn or written; instead, check in with your child (i.e. “Are you okay? Are you ready to destroy it?”)
  • do make a production of destroying it; ask your child how she wants it destroyed (i.e. into many little pieces, crumpled up and tossed into the trash can, taken out of the house immediately and put in the trash can outside, and so forth)
  • do ensure movement is involved; have your child get up out of their chair to destroy the paper
  • do make containment more conscious; after the image is destroyed, ask “if parts of that bad dream pop in to your mind again tonight, how can you remind yourself that you destroyed it? Remember how you took power over that image and destroyed it. You are safe and it has no power over you now”.

Setting the Stage to Encourage Sweet Dreams:

Nightmares can be a result of traumatic experiences. Reminders of the event can trigger a nightmare, and so can working through the traumatic experience in therapy (even though containment and precautions are used to minimize distress post-session). The following list of suggestions can be used to increases the likelihood of sweet dreams.

  • Help your child learn how to use her imagination: imagine together what a safe place would look like, what her most protective creature would like (and what it does to be protective of her, where it is in her room at night while she is sleeping – does it keep watch over her, and so forth). while doing bedtime, talk about what would be fun to dream about. Offer up your own starting points to get her imagination flowing (i.e. “Tonight when I go to sleep, it sure would be fun to dream about flying up with the birds and butterflies – I’d check out all the cool places they get to go when they fly out of our sight. What do you think would be fun to dream of?”
  • Talk about issues hours before bedtime: Check in with your child during the day, not just before bed. Talk with them about their worries, fears, and so forth. Doing so will give your child lots of time to practice using positive coping thoughts or to have the experience of feeling safe before bedtime
  • Night Lights: some children benefit from having a small night light on in their bedrooms. Fun new night lights project stars on to the walls, which can add a playful comforting feeling at bedtime. Alternatively, you could give your child a small flashlight, which she maintains control over should she want it on or off at any point
  • Open Doors: leaving your child’s bedroom door open can help her to feel as though she is still connected to her parents (her source of safety), leaving no doubt in her mind that help, if needed, will be easily obtained
  • Guided Relaxation: try reading a relaxation script for your child at bedtime. It can serve to put your child into a calm and peaceful frame of mind prior to dozing off
  • Security Objects: it might be helpful for your child to take their favorite stuffy to bed, or other security object. Security objects tend to help children feel relaxed and comforted
  • Television and screen time: try to avoid screen time just before bed. If your child is going to be watching tv just before bed, avoid scary shows that could add to her fears and make settling difficult

In therapy, your child is learning all kinds of helpful coping skills that facilitate awareness, acceptance of experiences, affect regulation, and healing. If you are aware of these some of these skills, use them with your child to aid in settling after a bad dream. Normalize the experience of the nightmare for her, so that she doesn’t feel ashamed or as though something is wrong with her.

Good luck, and sweet dreams!

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