How To Talk To Your Children About Their Nightmares
6 min read
Last Modified 20 December 2022 First Added 15 September 2015
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?
Let’s start with a quick and dirty science lesson on sleep. Humans cycle through Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-REM sleep approximately four to five times a night. Non-REM sleep begins with Stage One, very light sleep, then on to Stage Two, slightly deeper sleep, and then Stage Three, very deep, slow-wave sleep. Next, the cycle reverses itself, Stage Three, Stage Two, and then back to Stage One. This is where things get really interesting. After a complete cycle of non-REM sleep (1-2-3-2-1), the brain drops into REM sleep. The bulk of dreaming occurs during this time. Tell-tale signs of dreaming are present, including eye movements under closed eyes.
But, what is really going on with dreams during this time? The meaning and significance of dreams has been widely debated for centuries. Some experts believe that dreams reflect unconscious desires and anxieties. Others suggest that dreams facilitate memory consolidation or may represent, quite simply, random firing of neurons. Interestingly, children spend almost twice as much time in REM sleep than adults. This lends weight to the theory that dreams contribute to brain and memory development.
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.
If your child is struggling with persistent nightmares, then don’t fret. You can help your child with some practical strategies to help ease them into bed and sleep. This will reduce the likelihood they will go to bed stressed. Tension and anxiety leading up to bedtime can often filter into a child’s dreams. This will increase the likelihood of nightmares.
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’.
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 during 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.
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.
Remember, the goal is to create a quiet and calm night time 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 mind-set with fewer nightmare triggers. Some ideas for relaxation include a 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 YouTube to find videos of relaxing meditations for children.
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 dream. Remember to remind them that they are safe and the scary situation did not happen in real life.
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.
If your child continues to struggle with consistent and unsettling nightmares, you should, after implementing the above strategies, consider consulting with a child therapist to more accurately assess and understand your child’s experience.
How do you deal with your children’s nightmares? Let us know in the comments below.