Nightmares in kids: How to handle them

I have to stick my neck out and say I think a lot of the advice out there about nightmares is plain wrong!

Nightmares are a common part of childhood.

Almost all children have them at some time but some children have them a lot and can be very frightened by them throughout childhood.

My 3 year old has just started to have nightmares … they usually start between 2 and 3 … and so I have been looking for advice on how to help her handle them.

And I have to stick my neck out and say I think a lot of the advice out there is plain wrong!

You see, I was one of those kids who had really vivid and scary nightmares, very often.

I can clearly remember the images and the fear with which I would wake in the night, and the advice I’ve found doesn’t ring true to those memories.

So, whilst putting together a list of other people’s advice, I’ve also been racking my brain to make sense of my experiences as a child who was troubled by nightmares, and tried to recall what helped me most.

Night Terrors

The first thing to say about nightmares is that they are different from night terrors. If a child screams in their sleep and is difficult to wake or is confused, they are probably having a night terror. If they wake frightened, but able to describe their dream; it is a nightmare.

Nightmares After Trauma

There is also a big difference between nightmares which are a normal … and even healthy? … part of childhood and those that are a response to a traumatic event such as death, violence or abuse. I am in no way expert on nightmares after trauma, but from what I understand the nightmares will usually be about the trauma whilst “normal” nightmares are about imaginary fears.

With the right help, trauma induced nightmares should go away or become very infrequent. “Normal” nightmares typically continue until children are 6 or 7 or even … and this was true for me … 9 or 10 years old.

Do Scary Stories Cause Nightmares?

A lot of “experts” claim scary stories cause nightmares, particularly if read, watched or played just before bed.  These experts claim that if you avoid scary stories before bed and ensure children have a calming bed time routine, and plenty of sleep they will not suffer with nightmares.

This might be true for some children, but in general, I don’t buy it!

Most children’s nightmares have very common themes… being chased, falling, being lost, being trapped, unseen monsters … and these themes crop up throughout history in all cultures. They are also the themes that appear in the scary stories all cultures tell.

Have parents throughout time really been so witless as to give their kids nightmares by telling them scary stories before bed? Or were the stories, actually, a way to help children cope with fears that are fundamental to being a human?

As kids, we didn’t have a TV, and video games weren’t invented. We had a regular bed time, lots of sleep and pretty tame stories, and yet lots of nights, I was totally terrified by wolves who chased me into my house, and by falling into the darkness.

So my hunch is the fear came first, and the stories after. I really believe the best scary stories let children explore those fears in a safe space where … if the story is told well … darkness is defeated and everyone lives happily ever after.

Controlling Nightmares

So how do you help children who are suffering with scary dreams?

I think the most effective advice is to take children’s fears seriously, but to help them realise and remember it is just in their head and to share with them lots of ways they can make fun of the things that scare them and to believe that they can be brave and take control.

To support my case, I present the real expert on children’s scary dreams: Miss J K Rowling herself!

Do you remember the Boggarts in Harry Potter, Book 3? They are shape shifters who take the form of your deepest, darkest fear. Most of the time the best way to defeat them is the Ridiukulus spell in which you imagine the Boggart doing something completely ridiculous … Ron Weasley gets rid of his boggart who takes the form of an enormous spider by imagining it dancing in roller skates.

But some Boggarts, like Harry Potter’s dementor, cannot be defeated by laughter. Harry has to summon up all his courage and believe he can do something brave to be able to make it go away with a Patronus charm.

There are all sorts of imaginative ways to help children to laugh at fears and to believe that they can be brave, and I’ve included those that worked for me as a child or for friends in the list below.

Break The Cycle Early

Some children are so physically scared when they experience nightmares that they develop severe anxiety about going to sleep and having more nightmares. Unfortunately, because anxiety triggers nightmares, the more anxious they are, the more likely they are to have them again.

Children can become locked in a cycle of fear … not dissimilar to post-traumatic stress … and apparently ordinary nightmares can become a massive problem for them.

So if your child has bad nightmares very young, or either you or your partner suffered with nightmares when you were young … they do run in families … I would really encourage you to try out lots of the ideas to build coping skills as early as possible.

Disturbing Events

Children may suffer more from imaginary nightmares when they are experiencing something that disturbs their sense of inner security e.g. changing school, moving house, bullying, divorce. Children will need help in dealing with these specific anxieties themselves in addition to separate help in handling the nightmares.

Fear of the Dark

Some children who suffer with bad nightmares may also be scared of the dark. Waking up in the dark when they are already very frightened can send them into a terrified melt down.

Lots of children are scared of the dark and grow out of it, but some … including me … never do, even as adults. Lots of the ideas for coping with nightmares also help children get over a fear of the dark, but it’s important to recognise that some children won’t and that they need practical help such as good night lights and landing lights left on.

Anxious Children

There seems to a connection between severe nightmares and children with strong imaginations and higher than normal levels of anxiety, emotion or sensitivity to sensory stimuli. Children with these types of personalities may also be scared of the dark and of being left in a different part of the house by themselves.

Unfortunately, these children are often treated as “over anxious” which, I know from personal experience, isn’t helpful. If you think your child displays these traits, you may help them cope better with their nightmares by sharing with them techniques for coping with anxiety and panic attacks.

Tips to Help Children Handle Nightmares

  1. Don’t dismiss children’s nightmares or day time fears
  2. Explain nightmares are in their head, rather than real and that because they are in their head they can control what happens
  3. Explain that nightmares are a sign they’ve got a really great imagination and that it’s so great that they can change what happens in the nightmares
  4. Encourage children to talk about dreams good & bad if they want to
  5. Share your own experiences of nightmares as a child as this will encourage them to share theirs when they need to
  6. Encourage your child to imagine scary dream characters doing funny things such as sing funny songs or wear funny clothes …
  7. If you’ve got an early Harry Potter fan make a wand to have by the bed and have a Defence Against the Dark Arts class in which the whole family learns how to do the Ridikulus charm
  8. Again for Harry Potter fans get the whole family to pick a Patronus and learn together how to use the Patronus to defeat bad dreams
  9. With your child make up alternative endings to nightmares in which they triumph by being really heroic
  10. Encourage your child to draw pictures of nightmare characters doing funny things or being defeated by their own heroic actions
  11. Make up funny songs that can be sung in the middle of the night to help make images disappear … we sing “There’s no monsters on the stairs, there’s no monsters in the bed, the only monsters are living in my head” and then make the monsters in our head do funny things
  12. Pick some rousing or calming (as appropriate) songs to sing if they wake after a nightmare … sing them together initially but encourage them to sing them on their own (singing does actually produce hormones which combat anxiety)
  13. Read well written scary stories in which scary creatures are defeated by sympathetic heroes – you need to do your homework and read them yourself first
  14. Avoid badly written scary stories particularly any in which everyone does not live happily ever after … Chicken Licken & its variations in which they all get eaten is a good example of a badly written scary story!
  15. Write a story for your child in which they defeat particular creatures or situations they are scared of
  16. Help your child write a story in which they take control and do really brave things
  17. Put an old remote control or radio by their bed so that they can “change channels” when they wake up from a nightmare
  18. Help them paint a fun sign for their door or over their bed which tells nasty creatures to go away e.g. “Nice bears and wolves only allowed!”
  19. Build a junk model dream-o-meter with a dial and pictures from fun stories or family moments and let them set the dial on what they want to dream about
  20. Help them create a super-hero picture of themselves and put it over their bed
  21. Provide a night light in their room
  22. If they are scared of the dark leave a landing light on so they don’t have to get up into the dark
  23. Let them decide what makes them feel most comfortable in their bedroom and recognise this will vary by child … e.g. door wide open or tight shut, curtains a little bit open, position of bed
  24. Encourage them to stay in their bed if possible – better to help them feel calm again in their own bed rather than them associating your bed with escape from the nightmare
  25. Once calmed read a great story that makes you laugh out loud … we love cheeky Pippi Longstocking playing tag with the policemen … as laughter will reduce anxiety before going back to sleep
  26. Share with them basic techniques for dealing with panic attacks if they wake frightened … breathing slowly, counting slowly, singing a song, repeating a mantra, visualising a safe place
  27. If your child has an “anxious” personality … don’t see it as problematic, but help them learn how to use their sensitivity most positively and to “manage” their anxiety

Does your child suffer from nightmares – do you have any other ideas here too? Let us know!

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