How To Talk To Your Children About Their Nightmares

7 Min Read | By Lottie Salako

Last Modified 15 March 2024   First Added 15 September 2015

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

Your child has woken up from a scary dream for the third time in a week, but you don’t know what to do. Trying to console a sobbing child who only wants to climb into bed with you can be a struggle. What does it mean if your child has been having so many nightmares recently? What can you do before and after a nightmare to calm and soothe your child?

We spoke to Child Psychologist Dr Laura Kauffman to find out what you need to know about your child’s nightmares and how to help them sleep better.

Why do children have nightmares

Most of our dreaming happens during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, and children spend almost twice as much time in REM sleep than adults. Kids also have a much more active imagination as they cope with more novel experiences moving through the world. We process a lot of information while we sleep, and just like with adults, stress and anxiety can manifest as nightmares.

Beginning around age three or four, children begin to report the experience of nightmares. This is a time when a child’s imagination flourishes, their pretend play expands, and they have the capacity to consider danger and things that may harm them. The content of a child’s dream tends to mirror their developmental stage. Very young children may dream about losing a favourite stuffed animal, being separated from their primary caregiver, or someone being angry at them. Older children begin to dream about monsters and more realistic threats, such as burglars and being kidnapped.

What is the difference between nightmares and night terrors?

While some people may talk or move about while having a nightmare, a night terror is much more extreme. They usually happen to children between the ages of 3-12 and are caused by stress. However, night terrors happen during NREM (non-rapid eye movement), which is why people have a more active reaction, such as shouting, thrashing around, or sleepwalking.

Although scary, they are not harmful unless they’re causing sleep deprivation or causing your child to get into dangerous situations while sleepwalking. Learn more about night terrors and how to reduce them.

How to help children after a nightmare

Since most of us will have a nightmare or unpleasant dream, it’s important to know soothing strategies that will help kids (and grown-ups!) get back to sleep after a bad experience. Here are Dr Kauffman’s top tips:

1. Acknowledge their experience

Help your child understand and identify their experience as a dream. Labelling it for them will help your child to feel more calm. It will also enable them to distance and separate themselves from the scary images they saw in their dream. Normalise their fear and anxiety as understandable and typical reactions to a scary dream.

2. Offer comfort and reassurance

Remember to remind them that they are safe and that the scary situation did not happen in real life. Sometimes, it can be difficult to be sympathetic when we are tired ourselves, but for your child, the nightmare – whatever happened – is a genuine source of anxiety and upset. Children need to be taught how to soothe their emotions and require external comfort from the adults in their lives, so use your parental magic to banish the bad thoughts.

3. Help them get back to sleep

Once they have had a bad experience, it’s extremely important to support them to go back to sleep or they can get into a cycle of avoiding sleep to put off another nightmare. While you want them to be independent at bedtime, the best way to do this is to make sure that they are taught to overcome their fears.

4. Support them during the day

We’ve all had those dreams that stay with us and it’s the same for children. The day after a nightmare is a crucial time to support them and create coping strategies before bedtime. They may feel stressed about what happened in their dreams or have anxiety about going to sleep that night, so continuous reassurance can bring tension down before it causes an issue.

Ways to prevent nightmares

If your child is struggling with persistent nightmares, then don’t fret. You can help your child with some practical strategies from Dr Kauffman to help ease them into bed and sleep. This will reduce the likelihood they will go to bed stressed, helping to promote serene dreams.

1. Educate young children about dreams

Although it may be obvious to you, it can be useful to teach and remind children about dreams.

Remember to use developmentally appropriate language to help children understand that dreams contain scary content that did not happen in real life. You might say, ‘Dreams are films and pictures that our brain plays at night to help us learn or work through things that are scary or overwhelming. They are not real and did not happen in real life’.

2. Avoid scary media content before bedtime

Adults often forget how children are not sensitised to years and years of scary images viewed on the news, films, or internet. We have seen a lot, and we are not as surprised or unsettled by scary or threatening characters in the media. Children, however, have little to no experience with villains, scary and intense music, and plot lines with loss. Therefore, they are easily overwhelmed by this kind of sensory input. They experience it as scary in the moment, and they may likely encounter themes of stress and fear in their dreams as their brain tries to make sense of the situation.

Thus, parents should carefully monitor and censor the type of media their child is exposed to, even at older ages. Even teenagers are unsettled by images they have seen in horror movies. At the minimum, limit scary and intense media content immediately before bed. Bedtime is for cosy, ‘I’m-feeling-relaxed-and-safe’ kind of experiences.

3. The importance of lighting

Many children want a night light of some kind. But children who are particularly afraid of the dark and/or struggling with nightmares may want brighter lights, such as bedside, hall, or overhead lights on.

In general, I recommend that parents try to wean their child off brighter lights, as they can interfere with natural sleep cycles. Bright light signals to the brain that it is still daylight and inhibits the release of melatonin, a hormone that is critical to the onset of sleep.

If your child cannot tolerate less light and insists on bright lights in their room:

I often recommend to parents that they introduce night lights or overhead lights with a dimmer. Using systematic desensitisation, slowly, every couple of days, dial down the intensity of the light until your child is able to tolerate dim or no lighting at night.

4. Relaxation training

Remember, the goal is to create a quiet and calm nighttime routine to put your child in a relaxed state before heading to bed. Not only will this allow them to drift off to sleep sooner, but it will facilitate a more peaceful mindset with fewer nightmare triggers.

Some ideas for relaxation include regular practice of progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery each and every night. Lori Light has produced wonderful CDs and books designed specifically for children to help them relax. In addition, some parents have utilised audiobooks or YouTube videos of relaxing meditations for children.

Struggling with a bedtime routine? Get more expert advice

Should you let them sleep in your bed?

Often, after a bad dream, children will be reluctant to sleep by themselves and want to sleep in yours. This is ultimately a personal decision on how you want to parent, but Dr Kauffman offers her insights:

Consider your value around sleeping arrangements to guide your decision-making on this issue. If you regularly allow your child(ren) to sleep with you, then this is clearly not a question if they are requesting support and snuggling helps them drift back to sleep after a nightmare.

If, however, you believe strongly that children should generally sleep in their own bed, you should encourage your child to stay in their own bed.

Offer to stay with them a few minutes to help calm and relax them. Rub their back and offer encouraging words in a calm tone to reassure them that they are safe and you are nearby.

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