Generation Next: Zzzs Interrupted

Expert Advice For When Your Child Has Bad Dreams

In the middle of the night, it’s the sound every parent dreads — a frightened child awakened by a terrifying dream.

When bad dreams plague a child’s sleep, their peace of mind isn’t the only thing that’s shaken. Nightmares threaten a child’s sense of security — and they can wreak havoc on parents’ sleep cycles too.

Dr. Janet Kistner, chair of the Florida State University Psychology Department, gives this advice to parents for handling the issues that come with bad dreams:

“There are several preventive measures that can help your child’s mind go to the right places right before sleep,” says Kistner. “Don’t watch scary movies before bed, avoid high-excitement books if they enjoy being read to, and keep foods high in spices or sugars to a minimum.” Keeping the end of the day low energy and well balanced mentally prepares your child for sleeping calmly. A regular routine before bed can also emphasize security and order, which are likely to calm a child’s mind.

Many children have an object, such as a blanket or stuffed animal, that brings them comfort and security. Making sure your child has this with them before bed will allow them to feel safe and not alone as they drift off to sleep. Be careful with these items, especially when traveling. Leaving behind something so important can throw a child’s subconscious for a loop. “My daughter was devastated when we accidentally left Jerry the Dog somewhere on vacation,” Kistner recalls. She suggests that if you know your child has an affinity for an item, buy an extra and keep it tucked away, just in case.

Nightmares are a common facet of development, especially between the ages of 3 and 8. In the middle of the night, when you realize your child is experiencing a bad dream, it’s crucial to address it immediately. “It’s important to go to your child right away, because for them, the experience truly is terrifying,” explains Kistner. “Minimizing that trauma can lessen their focus on the subject matter, making it less real.” It’s all right to let your child speak about their dream, but convince them to do so calmly. Once your child has explained things, you can soothe them by pointing out familiar things around them.

Leaving a nightlight or a flashlight can be helpful once your child is calm. “One of the most frightening things about a nightmare can be the moment you awaken and are unaware of where you are,” Kistner explains. “Allowing the child the power to see and investigate for themselves that they are no longer in the world of their dream can teach them to cope with such instances independently.”

If your frightened child still seems insecure after talking about it, repeat parts of your nightly routine (like reading a book or saying nightly prayers) to help get her in the mindset of going back to sleep. You can stay with her until she falls asleep, and ideally when she wakes up again, the nightmare will be a distant memory.

But what if a child is particularly distressed? Taking a child to the parental bed isn’t in itself a wrong thing to do, says Kistner, “but it should be done carefully, as it could give the child a dependence on that luxury.” In the morning, if there still seems to be anxiety, try activities that will give the child a better memory to associate with the experience, such as drawing a picture of the nightmare and finding funny things about it, or creating a happy ending to the dream. This will empower your youngster and hopefully quell the fear of another nightmare.    

“Above all,” says Kistner, “remember never to become angry with your child, for whom the experience is real and terrifying.”

Once your child’s mind is eased, his sleep — and yours — should return to normal.

Categories: - Parenting, Advice, Family