If you have ever been awakened by your terrified child because of a nightmare, you know how helpless the situation can make you can feel.
Although we cannot control what our kids are dreaming about, we can help them build skills to cope with their nightmares. Here are a few ways to help your children get back to their sweet dreams after a nightmare.
Function of dreams
Nightmares are dreams that usually wake the dreamer and stir negative emotions. The highest prevalence of nightmares has been shown between the ages of 5 to 10, according to a 2009 study of children's nightmares.
Nightmares appear to be an evolutionary tool for survival in that our brains can problem-solve a variety of scenarios, Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett wrote in the forward of the book "Working with Dreams and PTSD Nightmares." This can make dreams feel a little less scary, knowing that your brain is just prepping for different situations.
How you set up bedtime can make a huge difference in the emotional content of your dreams. An interesting note from a 2015 study about bedtime routines is the advice to make sure bedtime is early enough for your children to get 8 to 10 hours of rest. We might feel like we are doing them a favor by letting them stay up late, but really we might be hurting their sleep cycle.You'll want to stay as consistent as possible so that the routine is predictable for them, as prediction of future expectations is comforting for children.
Make sure to take the time to comfort your children on both the rational side and the emotional side, psychologist Marsha M. Linehan suggests in her "DBT Training Skills Manual." An example of how to comfort the rational/logical side would be to say: "You are safe here. No one is chasing you."
With the emotional side, you want to acknowledge the emotion the child is having and help them calm themselves. For example: "I know you are scared. Take some deep breaths to calm your fear down."
In the moment strategies
1. Practice mindfulness
Talk your child through the five senses mindfulness activity - going through the five senses of touch, hearing, smell, taste and sight. Ask your child questions like: "Feel your blanket. Describe to me how it feels," and "Take a drink of your water. What is it like to drink water?" This exercise gets your child back to their body and more centered.
2. Rewrite the ending
If your child can remember the nightmare, have them rewrite the ending. If they were being chased by a monster, help them come up with an ending where they defeat the monster. If the nightmare ended with them losing someone or having someone they care about die, have them create an ending in which they saved that person and became the hero. Not only does the story change for them, it can give the child a sense of control that is often lost in nightmares.
3. Change the "channel"
If your child is having a difficult time focusing in on themselves or telling the story, walk them through changing the "channel." Just like they are changing the channel on a television, they are going to imagine flipping to a new channel that features a particular show that is calming or comforting to them. Have them tell you what the show is, what the plot is, and which characters are in the particular episode.
Along with a healthy consistent bedtime routine, you'll want to consider the images and media your children are interacting with. Having parental locks on media sites will help reduce adding new images to those that are apart of their nightmares.
Another aspect to pay attention to is whether your child feels safe. Even if their answers don't make rational sense, you should try to make them feel more secure. Adding baby gates, night lights and extra blankets can help your child feel more secure.
Just because your child is experiencing nightmares, it does not mean that they are experiencing traumatic events in their waking hours, a 1992 study found. However, it is important that you address these distressing dreams and find support in creating a safety support plan. This support can be found with teachers, counselors, other caregivers and even siblings.
Nightmares can be a stressful and uncomfortable time for both the child and their caregiver. But with a little help and practice, your child can learn how to manage nightmares and return to a good night's rest.