How to Stop Nightmares in Children: 5 Steps That Work for Me
In my house, I'm the dedicated bad dream de-escalator. I'm by no means an expert, but I've learned a thing or two about how to calm a kid down in the middle of the night.
In my house, I’m the designated Bad Dream De-escalator, the fighter of nightmares. How did I earn such a formidable title? Partly, it’s because my wife wakes up ornery in the middle of the night. The kids learned this truth and know to go to my side of the bed if they want a gentle “What’s wrong, honey?” instead of a shrill “What is it?!”
My Bad Dream De-escalator role grows out of the comforting ability I’ve always had with the kids. Something about my great, hairy, hulking body and rumbly deep voice soothed them as squalling infants, and it soothes them now when they wake, panicked, and confused, crying out as some unsettling dream fades from their minds. What causes bad dreams? Ask a sleep expert. That’s not my area. But I do know how to stop nightmares from lurking in my kid’s subconscious.
I didn’t plan it that way. Like most of my parenting wins, I got here through a combination of good luck and good instincts. But if I was telling you how to stop nightmares in your own house, I’d tell you to keep these tips in mind.
1. Lay the Groundwork
I’ve told my kids their whole lives that my first job is to protect them. I’ve said this when we’re standing at busy street corners, hiking along the edges of steep mountainsides, and riding bikes down the sidewalk. When our first child was very little, I reinforced the first-job idea with the fictional notion that I — as part Sasquatch — was terrifying to wild animals. Bears, wolves, and coyotes would smell my scent and turn tail instead of attacking.
I first revealed my Sasquatch heritage on a camping trip. At night in the woods, every leafy rustle, creaking branch, and frantic scuttle is evidence of an impending pounce. The Sasquatch ploy eased our daughter to sleep, and I repeated it several more times. Eventually, I let it drop after she asked a friend’s dad — whose body hair density equaled my own — if he was also part Sasquatch. In retrospect, I feel fortunate that this little fable was never put to the test in a confrontation with a bear, who no doubt would have cheerily clawed my skull to mushy bits.
Nonetheless, letting your kids know that their safety is always top of mind for you will have a trickle-down effect. If you hammer home your role as protector with the oldest kid, he’ll look to you, see that you’re calm, and calm down too. The younger kids, looking at their oldest sibling, will see there’s no reason to be frightened.
In the aftermath of a nightmare, remind your kids that their safety is your chief concern. If the cackling vampire were real, you’d be ready for action. You’d tackle his ancient ass and pound a stake into his heart. But since he’s not real, just a scary dream, everyone can go back to sleep. No need for fisticuffs and harried flight. Peaceful slumber only, all night long.
2. Soothe, Don’t Interrogate
When your child awakes, screaming in the night, please understand that he is not inviting a conversation. Every parent knows that different cries mean different things. There’s the boo-boo cry, the significant-injury cry, the frustrated cry, and the I’m-trying-to-get-my-brother-in-trouble cry. The nightmare cry is incoherent and irrational. It’s half-asleep and half-awake, with a “maybe-I’m-dead” note thrown in.
Put the dream journal away. The content of the nightmare is unimportant at the moment. The “what?” and “why?” can be discussed later. Right now, while your child is shrieking with wide, unseeing eyes, your only duty is to pull her gently back into reality.
Tell her everything is okay. Tell her she’s safe and sound in her warm bed. Tell her nothing’s going to hurt her. Smooth her hair, rub her back, snuggle her in a hug. Channel Morgan Freeman as you speak. You are affable and comforting. Your voice is a thick, lumpy old sweater, knitted from the warmest wool ever spun. Narrate what’s happening: It’s just a bad dream. It’s not real. You’re scared, but you’re not hurt. Guide her imagination to happier locales. Tell her to think of someplace that makes her feel relaxed and carefree. Think of warm sand, gentle waves. A wading pool filled with spunky kittens, joyous puppies wrestling on a wide, rolling lawn. These scenarios don’t have to make sense — you’re only seeking to create a feeling, one that will extinguish the bad feeling that seized her mind.
Dry her tears, murmur a little lullaby, and snatch the novelty witch figurine off her dresser as you tiptoe out of the room. Hide the witch in the back of your closet. That thing is creepy.
3. Put Yourself in Their Footy Pajamas
I had terrible fears at night as a child.When I think back on those years of being young, I remember an endless parade of nights I jolted awake, heart racing, unsure of what was real or imagined. Maybe it had something to do with all the inappropriate movies my dad let me watch? I can’t lay the blame on him entirely, though. The coolest kid in my first-grade class dressed up as the grim reaper for Halloween, and so I did too, even though the skull mask freaked me out. Pop culture back then was harsh. Someone’s older brother was always describing the face of Freddy Krueger. Dungeons & Dragons was scheming to drag you to hell, if the Satan-worshipping metalheads didn’t drag you off to the woods first for a ritual sacrifice.
From nuclear bombs to kidnapping lunatics, there was plenty to be frightened of. It might turn out that the baddy was your own father or that your boyfriend was the dancing werewolf. You couldn’t trust anyone.
I went to sleepaway camp one summer, and I’m pretty sure I woke up screaming every night. I’m positive my counselor would have preferred to drown me in the lake, but he was patient and kind. I don’t remember his name, but we’ll call him Mike. Each night, it went like this: Me, gripped with unnameable horror: “Mike! Mike! What’s happening?! Where are we?!” Mike: after a moment, “We’re at camp. You’re fine. Go to sleep.”
I’m telling you all this to remind you that childhood is filled with terror. Adults are gigantic, distracted beasts who control your every activity. Their decisions make no sense and are hardly ever explained. You are entirely at their mercy. Again and again, you are thrown together with strangers and ordered to make friends. Plans change, the scene shifts, and you can’t run away. They catch you every time. What does that sound like to you? It’s a nightmare!
The point is, even the happiest child lives in a world of mystery. His imagination swims so close to the surface that the difference between reality and fantasy is often hard to judge. See the world through his eyes. Remember the inscrutable nature of random events. Tap into your inner terrified child — but don’t spook yourself! — and you’ll have an easier time connecting with your own kid in a wordless, empathic way that quiets his night terrors.
4. Install Trigger Locks
In other words: Keep a lid on Pandora’s box. What primes your kid for bad dreams? Clowns? Shopping mall Santas? Sports mascots? Caillou? Certain kinds of movies? Weird illustrations in books?
It was easy to figure out the triggers for our first kid. She commenced open-mouthed wailing at anything that was too emotionally charged. Movies, especially, sent her over the edge. Even animated films were off limits. Monsters, Inc. was a no-go. Rango sent her into hysterics. When she was itty-bitty, we went into Best Buy for some electronic item that escapes my memory. Every television in the place was showing the trailer for this movie. Yeah. That was a long few weeks of nightmares. Thanks, Best Buy.
Our second kid is more of a ponderer. He can experience something unsettling and appear to be unruffled, but then it bubbles to the surface at three o’clock in the morning. This has required us to pay closer attention to his mood in the immediate aftermath of, say, watching a chorus of animatronic chickens cluck its way through a series of down-home tunes. Did he actually find it funny, or will those shabby robot chickens chase him through a murder barn later tonight?
In any case, you should do your best to mitigate these triggers. I’m not suggesting that you attempt to create a bubble-boy existence, free of all spooky inputs. But there’s nothing to be gained from needlessly exposing your kids to images and experiences you know they find terrifying. It’s the same reason you shouldn’t look at Twitter before you go to sleep.
5. Manage Your Own Terrors
Maybe the call is coming from inside the house. Ever think of that? What I mean is, consider the thoughts and scenarios you create for your kids. Do you tell them to look both ways at the street corner because otherwise a car will rip their bodies in half and smear their guts down the street? Do you lock the front door at night, mentioning the need to protect yourself from masked killer bandits marauding through the countryside?
If these are your fears, there’s no need to project them onto your children. Sure, sometimes people break into homes and murder everyone inside. You, as an adult, can carry that knowledge around in your head without letting it spin into nightmares for life. Not so for kids. Any event is equally possible as far as they’re concerned. It’s just as likely that pirates will break down the door to eat their livers as it is for a unicorn to tap its horn against the window, beckoning them to a thrilling ride through Fairyland. The idea that neither of these events will occur — that instead the night will pass in boring, uneventful hours — will not enter their minds. Feeding their darkest imaginings with unspeakable acts does nothing to teach them how to survive in the world. It only heaps anxieties upon them.
It’s okay to show fear in front of your kids when the real-life situation you’re in is scary. Watching you get scared, and then calm down, will give them a blueprint for their own behavior. What you shouldn’t do is tremble at the window, holding a butcher knife, because you made the mistake of bingeing old Unsolved Mysteries episodes long enough to allow Robert Stack’s voice to loosen control of both your bladder and your rational mind. If your kid wakes up when you’re in that spot, how are you going to calm him down? You’re a gibbering mess yourself! Remember, channel Morgan Freeman. You have to be able to sell it when you say, “It was just a bad dream, honey. It’s not real.”
Unless the nightmare is about a ghost. I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that ghosts latch on to kids precisely because they have trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy. Kids have a shine on them. So if your boy wakes up screaming about a ghost holding an ax in the corner of his bedroom, get out now. Your shit is haunted.