Everyone dreams. Most people probably remember having at least one nightmare – a very frightening dream. There are some people who are bothered by regular nightmares, so much so that they don’t want to go to sleep. This can happen to children as well as to adults. After experiencing a traumatic event, people can have nightmares virtually nightly, until the trauma is resolved. Whether it’s once in a blue moon or a regular occurrence, a child’s nightmare always requires parental attention.
If your child has had nightmares, consider the following tips:
Some Kids are Sensitive to Images
Some kids are particularly vulnerable to scary images they see in books, movies and on T.V.. They can also create their own frightening images based on what they hear in snippets of conversations around them. It isn’t possible to always shelter kids from unpleasant images, but parents can certainly respect the child’s vulnerability and try to limit frightening stimulation – for example, there is no need to insist that a child confront a disturbing image that is only recreational in nature (i.e a violent movie). If a child has come across a disturbing image, parents can help the child to talk about it, both accepting the child’s fear and also explaining the pretend-nature of the picture. For children whose vivid imaginations and sensitivity often lead to nightmares, parents can try offering the Bach Flower Remedy called Walnut – a harmless, water-based form of vibrational medicine available at health food stores everywhere. Give two drops in liquid (water, juice, milk, etc.) four times a day until the nightmares stop. Or, for nightmares about ghosts and other vague, scary fantasies, try the Bach Remedy called Aspen. The remedy Mimulus can help with nightmares about more specific fears, such as people dying or scary events like being robbed or chased. A Bach Flower practitioner can help further. You may also find more information about Bach Flower Remedies on this site.
Nightmares can be Triggered by Food Sensitivities
If there is no other apparent reason for the nightmares, you might consider the possibility of food sensitivities. Sometimes such sensitivities can chemical processes that can cause nightmares. Any food can cause problems, so you might need a systematic approach to food elimination in order to find out if there is a sensitivity. Naturopaths and self-help books can help with the process, or you might be able to find a medical specialist who tests for sensitivities (not allergies).
Consider Stress or Traumatic Events
If your child has experienced a stressful event or situation lately (i.e. medical or dental procedures, moving, a mean teacher, examinations, and so on), or even a traumatic experience (car accident, robbery, bullying, assault, family violence), then it’s possible that the nightmare is a sign that he or she is having difficulty coping with the situation. If a child who recently experienced the death of a loved one, for example, gets recurring nightmares, it’s possible that there are feelings he or she can’t identify or express. The child may also have experienced some sort of traumatic or overwhelming experience that you aren’t aware of – at school, at a place of worship, at an extracurricular activity, while volunteering or babysitting or even in your own home with his or her siblings or other relatives. If you KNOW that something stressful has happened, be sure to talk to your child, naming the feelings that YOU would have if you were dealing with that situation. Help the child to express his or her feelings by using Emotional Coaching (learn how to use this technique in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe). Unremitting nightmares should always best checked out by a child psychologist.
Medicines, Substances and Illness
Certain health conditions can trigger nightmares, as can mind-altering substances and even over-the-counter medications. Withdrawal from substances can also trigger nightmares. If your child has been unwell or on medication and is having unusual nightmares, speak to the pediatrician.
Ways to Help Your Child
Accept your child’s fear and anxiety. Saying things like, “It’s not real. Go back to sleep,” doesn’t do anything to comfort a child and may even make them feel ashamed simply for having a normal reaction. Remember: to a young child, a dream can be so vivid, it feels like it actually happened. Go slowly and gently, taking time to calm and soothe your child to help orient him back to reality. Give a hug or a kiss or rub his or her back. Get him or her a glass of water or even a cracker to munch on, as eating and drinking are “grounding” activities that bring a child back into his body and away from the fantasy in his head. Putting a few drops of Rescue Remedy in the water can be particularly helpful, or even dropping them on a child’s wrists will work (Rescue Remedy is available in health food stores and is a harmless Bach Flower Remedy that quickly turns off adrenaline and restores emotional balance in cases where the fight-or-flight response has been activated.)
After a bad dream, separation anxiety may re-surface. Kids may demand that you stay with them as they go back to sleep, or they might insist on following you back to your room. They may also put up a big fuss when you attempt to leave their presence. Remember that these responses to terrifying dreams are all normal. Because your child is feeling fearful and maybe even disoriented and confused, make the exception if possible, and indulge his or her need for physical presence.
Nightmares are ultimately fantasy, so fantasy is an excellent way to deal with them. If your child’s nightmare did not have a happy ending, perhaps you can continue the story together — with your child emerging triumphant against the object of his or her fear. For instance, if the nightmare is about being attacked by monsters, a child can be encouraged to pretend that he or she is a “monster exterminator.” The child can role-play assertively warning the monster that he’s toast, and capturing the monster with special weapons. Although this may seem silly, this very strategy is used very successfully to help victims of trauma to deal with their terrifying nightmares.
Help Your Child Cope with the Aftereffects of a Nightmare
Sometimes the fear isn’t just an aftershock to a nightmare. It’s also possible that a nightmare creates worry that tragedy will happen in real life. For example, dreaming that a loved one died can create fear in a child that the loved one will indeed pass away. Gently but firmly explain to your child that just because something happened in a dream doesn’t mean it will happen in real life. At the same time, acknowledge your child’s fear. For instance, you can say something like, “I understand that you’re worried that Grandpa will die because he died in your dream. That must make you feel very sad.” When you name the child’s feeling, the feeling will intensify (often to the point of tears) and then disappear. In this example, the child might cry when the parent acknowledges the sad thought and then the child might say, “Anyway, it was just a dream. I know Grandpa is fine.” Allowing a person to feel his feelings is a fast way of helping that person to clear the negative feelings out of his system.
Help Your Child Prevent Nightmares
If a nightmare has really made a child feel helpless and victimized, you can teach him ways on how to manipulate images in a dream. While controlling one’s dreams takes practice to learn to do, the steps are child-friendly. Just encourage kids to visualize their desired dream content when they get to bed (“think of something nice that you’d like to dream about”), and remind themselves that they are just dreaming when faced with bad dream content. They can wake themselves up and change their focus to a positive storyline as they fall asleep again.
In addition, using effective stress management techniques before bed can help alleviate bad dreams. For instance, you might teach your child EFT (emotional freedom technique – there’s lots of on-line resources for this technique as well as therapists who can teach it to your child) so that the child can remove worries, fears and problems from his mind before falling asleep (YOU should learn it too!). This helps the mind have a better, more peaceful rest.
For a recurring nightmare, ask the child to create a satisfactory ending for the bad dream. Have him tell you the dream along with the new ending. Have him do it over and over until he feels calm. If he’s old enough, he can also write and rewrite the new dream, helping to install it deeper in his unconscious mind.
Therapeutic Bedtime Stories
Parents can make up healing bedtime stories for young children. One way to do this is to create a main character whose name just happens to be the same name as that of your frightened child. By way of example, let’s call the main character in our story “Liam.” The title of the series of stories is “Liam the Brave.” You now make up a different story each night about episodes starring Liam-the-Brave. In each story, Liam fights off scary foes using his arsenal of magic weapons. For instance, on Monday night, Liam-the-Brave takes a canoe trip down the river in deepest Africa. As he passes through the tropical jungle, he encounters crocodiles, warrior tribes, hungry animals and more. Every time he faces a threat, he pulls out a magic weapon from his magic weapon bag and aims it at the “enemy.” By waving, shaking or otherwise triggering the weapon, Liam successfully makes the threat vanish into thin air. He then continues on his trip, observing the beautiful waterfalls, plants and friendly animals, until the next threat appears. And so on. Of course, the story always ends happily with Liam arriving at his destination. On Tuesday night, the parent tells a similar story, this time taking place in outer space. On Wednesday night, the events may take place in the Antarctic and so on. Although the stories are nonsensical, they have been shown to give children a sense of power over internal enemies. Try them for a week or so and see if they help end your child’s nightmares and his fear of having bad dreams.
Consider Professional Help
Your child should not have to suffer from regular nightmares. Be sure to speak to your doctor and/or a child psychologist if your interventions have not resolved the problem.