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Advice For Parents About Their Kids’ Nightmares And Bad Dreams

flickr / Lars Plougmann

Kids have all sorts of excuses for leaving their bed at night. Some are easy to shoot down: No, you already have water. Yes, you are tired. No, 2 AM is not the time to belly flop into bed and accidentally crush my genitals like wine grapes. But it’s hard to blame a midnight wanderer for violating the “stay in bed” rule when they’re having dreams about stuffed animals with pulsing eyes or monstrous pizza slices that are trying to eat them. Bad dreams are wicked things.

monsters inc scaring scene

According to Christopher Drapeau, a sleep disorder clinician at Mississippi State University, nightmares are “a common part of childhood and rarely become chronic.” But that isn’t to say they don’t keep you awake at night. That’s why, Drapeau, along with Antonio Zadra, a dream researcher who’s been studying bad dreams for more than 20 years, explain some common causes for kids’ horrible head-movies, how to separate run-of-the-mill nightmares from signs of true emotional distress, and the best ways to talk through terrifying dreams.

Some Facts About Nightmares

So, who’s getting nightmares? Children of all ages. Zadra, who’s spent years delving into dreams, analyzed 24 nightmare studies from 1982 to 2009 and spotted a few trends:

  • Half of all kids, from toddlers to teens, experience nightmares once in awhile. About 40 percent have frequent nightmares — meaning, at least one per month.
  • Nightmare frequency peaks between age 7 and 10, and drops sharply during the tween years.
  • Anxious children have more nightmares than go-with-the-flow types.
  • Certain behavioral issues may predict nightmare frequency (ex., misconduct at school), but there’s no scientific consensus.
  • Kids with PTSD are especially vulnerable to nightmares, and their dreams are materially different from those of non-traumatized children. Researchers can even predict which kids have experienced trauma based on what haunts their dreams.
  • Nightmares are more common among girls than boys, but this gender difference may not emerge until after age 10. It’s not clear if girls actually experience more nightmares, or if boys report fewer nightmares because they don’t want to speak up or don’t remember their dreams as often as girls.

How Nightmares Evolve

Change is constant in kids. They grow taller, smarter, and smellier by the second. And their nightmares develop accordingly, says Drapeau. For toddlers and young children, dreams may focus on imaginary creatures and parental separation. Older kids, however, are more likely to wake up in a cold sweat over stressful life events or issues related to what’s streaming on their screens.

“With greater autonomy and less supervision, children can be exposed to material on television or the internet that they may not be developmentally prepared to process emotionally,” says Drapeau. Such unfiltered content is basically unleaded regular fuel for bad dreams.

How Many Are Too Many?

Well, that depends — frequency matters less than impact. “Nightmares essentially become a ‘problem’ when they generate significant distress in the person who has them,”’ says Zadra. “So the main criterion is not the frequency of nightmares per se. “If your kids’ dreams start to impair their functioning, you should get involved.” Signs of impaired functioning include anxiety, daytime sleepiness, and poor concentration or memory. Also, having them tell you they can’t sleep because the giant pizza slice will eat them is a pretty good sign.

‘Mare Vs. Terrors

It’s important to distinguish nightmares from other disturbing dream-related issues. Technically, a nightmare is a bad dream that causes someone to wake up. But because nothing is ever simple, waking up distraught doesn’t necessarily signal a nightmare.

If a kid awakens, disoriented and upset, but without any recollection of a dream — it’s probably night terrors. These resemble nightmares, but are an “entirely different (and common) sleep disorder with their own characteristics and developmental profiles, as well as treatment options,” says Drapeau.

Per Drapeau, nightmares tend to happen during the last third of the night, whereas terrors ruin sleep closer to bedtime. Awakenings from night terrors also tend to coincide with a piercing scream and disorientation, whereas kids should be more with it and able to recall their dreams following nightmares.

The Kids Are Alright

When nightmares happen, Drapeau says you should escort kids back to their rooms (if they’ve fled). Once they’re returned to the scene of the thought-crime, let them know you have their back. Ask a lot of questions such as “What did you see? Was it scary?” — and let them explain without fear of judgment, or dismiss (“Pizza is delicious. It would never eat you.”)

Just don’t let the talk linger. “Conversations about the nightmare should end once the child has been reassured, and shouldn’t continue until the following day when coping strategies can be discussed preferably during the daytime and not just before bedtime,” says Drapeau. “This may heighten anxiety about going to bed.”

Don’t Set Up Camp In Their Bedroom

You may be inclined to comfort your nightmare. But you should fight the urge. Otherwise, Drapeau says a child may become reliant on having you around in order to fall back asleep. And you know what a twin bed does to your back.

Help Them Flip The Nightmare’s Script

If nightmares are becoming scary at all hours, there’s a cognitive treatment method called  Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), which has 20 years of research-backed success in lowering nightmare frequency. Zadra says it’s simple enough for parents to take on without professional help.

Here’s how it works: You and your nightmare-stricken kid create an alternative script for their bad dream, transforming scary elements into those that are silly or joyful. For example, a dream about walking into a monster’s lair becomes one about happening upon a puppy kingdom. Once this is on paper, have your kid  “rehearse” the new, revised dream by drawing it over and over (but not in a creepy horror movie sort of way). Pretty soon, the only thing will keep you up at night is having to buy a puppy.