Children — and adults — have nightmares for many reasons. Maybe your child wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. Or he often walks into your room saying, “Mommy, I’ve had a bad dream.” Or she demands more and more elaborate bedtime rituals until you finally figure out that she’s afraid to go to sleep because of monsters under the bed.
First things first, why do children get bad dreams? What are the different reasons why they may be struggling with sleeping due to bad dreams and night terrors? As parents, we don’t want our kids to suffer at any point in their lives if we can help it. But what can you, as a parent, do to stop nightmares?
There are many different reasons why kids have bad dreams and they can give you clues on how to help them so you can get back some adult downtime in the evenings.
Maybe there are some upsetting events in their life, a big or even small change in their routine, illness or high fevers, or medications they are taking. Sometimes, nightmares are just due to a normal developmental life stage.
It seems that there is a gradual or sudden dawning consciousness for children between three to seven years old that their parents cannot protect them from everything.
At this stage, children are just beginning to recognize that their previously infallible and all-protecting parents are not perfect and that the world can be a scary place.
This can come as a shock to them.
Additionally, they have to leave the nest for increasing periods of time for school and other outside activities. That makes this age span a common time for nightmares to occur.
Children have to figure out how to negotiate their expanding world, and the anxieties associated with this developmental step can seep into sleep.
For many kids, the nightmares can be resolved by themselves, with just a little TLC and good parenting styles and techniques.
But for others, parents may need further methods to restore their kids’ feelings of competence and agency in their world so they regain some power over their night monsters.
With that said, here are 10 ways to stop nightmares (hint: these methods work great for adults, too!).
1. Buy Them a Nightlight.
Never underestimate the power of a good nightlight to chase away the scary darkness.
2. Buy Them a “Monster Vaporizer.”
In addition to an actual nightlight, some kids love to have a “monster vaporizer” in the form of a flashlight.
When they point it into all the dark corners and under the bed, it will automatically vaporize any lurking dangers.
3. Encourage Them to Talk About It.
Have them tell the story of the dream out loud.
Then, join them in deciding which objects, other people, or magical/spiritual beings they want to bring with them into the dream or into the room to keep them safe.
4. Let Them Draw.
Have your child draw a picture of the nightmare and then change the picture by making it humorous (i.e., put a funny hat on the monster) or adding the magical safety items to the picture.
5. Let Them Talk to the Monster.
Once it is safely contained (i.e. put it in jail, in a cage, behind a fence, or behind a force field), let your child try talking back to the dream monster.
Even saying, “Na-na-na-na-na, you can’t get me!” or “Go away!” can be very powerful for a certain age group.
6. Let Them Obliterate It If They Must.
When my daughter was young, her personal favorite approach was to draw the dream monster or bad guy and then scribble over it with a heavy black magic marker until it was completely obliterated.
If that’s not enough, your child can rip the paper into tiny shreds. Then, if that’s not enough either, help them burn the shreds of paper safely in a big pot or container. Then, if that’s not enough either, flush the ashes down the toilet!
Keep going with the process until your child gets to a centered and quiet place.
Parts of this method are adapted from a process known as Gentle Reprocessing, developed by Diane Spindler as a variation on the body/mind healing method Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
7. Let Them Interact With the Nightmare.
Have your child try to have an actual conversation with the dream monster or bad guy, once they feel safe to do so. Have them find out why it is there, what it wants, and how to appease or befriend it.
They can feed it a cookie and see what gift it has brought for them as a young dreamer.
A great book you can read to young readers (and older ones who can read to themselves) is A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book of the EarthSea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin. This magical allegory concludes with the young wizard Ged learning how to face his monsters.
8. Get Them a Dream Catcher.
Native American dream catchers can be hung over the bed to “catch” the bad dreams, while the hole in the middle lets the good ones come through.
9. Be There for Them.
Of course, utilize hugs, lullabies, and cuddling, and the power of your true and loving presence.
10. Implement D.R.E.A.M.S
For those who like acronyms, this is a useful one to help kids with nightmares:
- Describe the dream.
- Reflective listening: “It looks like you’re really scared.”
- Express reassurance: Not that it is “just a dream”, rather that they have your support, that scary dreams are a common occurrence and you understand how real they feel, and that you will help to resolve it.
- Allies and action: Gather up real and imaginary resources and take action.
- Move and modify: Create movement in the dream so the child is no longer stuck in the scene, and/ or make modifications to the dream in the middle or the end to resolve the threat.
- Seek safety: Find the long-term solutions as needed; the goal for the dream and for life is to experience safety.
Finally, if the nightmares persist or you know or suspect that your child is reacting to traumatic events in their life, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
This guest article was originally published on YourTango.com: Why Your Kids Keep Having Bad Dreams And How To Stop Nightmares From Happening So Often.