“Boo! Boo! BOOOO!” is what my husband wakes to when I’m experiencing yet another of my reoccurring dreams about scaring the bad guys away.
This must, I think in my REM stage, scare away the boogie men.
We’ve all had bad dreams and often reflect on what they might mean. But trying to make sense of children’s nightmares can be the worst. Waking up to a crying, scared child who often isn’t making much sense in talking about monsters or terrifying storms is rough for both you and the little one.
Children can have nightmares as early as the toddler years. Obviously it can be a tremendously frightening experience for them as they are still sorting out what is real and make believe.
Older children start to develop some coping skills and learn to shake off or manage nightmares in much the same way as adults do.
Safety and Security
When you discover your child has had a nightmare, offer comfort and cuddles. If he isn’t in his own bed, guide him back there. This will keep your bed from turning into a refuge. Offer a sip of water or a bathroom break. If possible, turn on a lamp or hall light rather than a bright “time-to-wake-up” overhead light. Remind him he is safe. Let him share what his nightmare was about.
As the mood calms, tuck him back into bed and encourage relaxation. Maybe sit with him for a few minutes longer. Perhaps read to him or rub his back for a few minutes.
It’s okay if he doesn’t fall asleep immediately. You’ve reached your goal when he is no longer panicked from the nightmare. Don’t chastise him. Don’t inadvertently increase his anxiety about sleep with lectures on how tired he will be tomorrow if he doesn’t get back to sleep. Finally, take yourself back to bed with the expectation that he will stay in bed in much the same way as if you were tucking him in at the beginning of the night — and hope for the best.
Some strategies to better manage nightmares include making sure your child has a nightlight or some other dim light filtering into their room. Consider leaving the bedroom door open to alleviate the sense of isolation. If your child is good with pets, perhaps the family cat or dog might stay in their room to provide comfort. Don’t forget the soothing powers of a beloved stuffed animal or favorite blanket.
Any parent has moments of getting caught up in the details of a child’s life and worrying that something is very wrong. Never ignore your gut instinct, but do take a step back and look at the big picture of your child’s life. The occasional nightmare is not a red flag. But if it happens frequently, do some digging.
1.) Is he behaving normally?
2.) Has anything about his routine changed?
3.) Is he more withdrawn?
4.) Are his emotions all over the place for no known reason?
5.) Has his social or school life changed?
Persistent nightmares could indicate a child is carrying around a lot of worry. Frequent nightmares could potentially indicate your kid has been abused or traumatized. With these scenarios a parent would typically, but not always, notice other behavioral changes. If you believe there is more to your child’s nightmares, set aside time to talk with him in a calm and caring manner. Encourage him to speak openly, but don’t pressure or interrogate him. If you still feel something is amiss, consult your pediatrician or school counselor.
Let’s also not overlook the evening routine. Movies or even certain bedtime stories can leave children a nervous mess.
What doesn’t seem frightening to a child when everyone is watching together in the family room can turn scary when he’s faced with going to sleep alone in a dark room. If your youngster seems prone to nightmares, limit exposure to frightening or exciting material near bedtime. Create a mellow evening routine with a focus on soothing activities, such as a warm bath, drawing, or journaling.
While not pleasant, nightmares are a routine part of childhood. A caring but not over- the-top response will help your child develop the coping skills and maturity to handle these disturbing dreams.
Jill Kaufmann, LMFT, is a family therapist in Bend, Oregon.
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