Half of children will experience nightmares, which typically arrive, talons-out, in the minds of those between the ages of three and six. It’s a common experience and not one that should overly concern parents, but it’s upsetting as well. No one wants to see their kid terrified. And biological norms are no consolation to children pursued through imagined forests by imagined wolves. That means parents can’t expect to talk kids out of their dreams, but it doesn’t mean they can’t help. They can, by focusing on sleep itself–and also going full Inception.
“When a child has a nightmare is not the time to sleep train,” suggests Dr. Kristin Bencik-Boudreau, a pediatrician and assistant clinical professor at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. “If your child is scared, you go in and you comfort them, because they are truly scared and upset. You comfort them, you coddle them, reassure them everything is okay. I do not recommend that they stay with the child until they fall asleep, though, because then you are going to mess up their sleep patterns. So you reassure them, let them get drowsy, and then go back into your normal routine.”
Nightmares, Bencik-Boudreau explains, are a clear developmental milestone, related to the development of the imagination and more abstract fears. Thus, the range of scary things expands from the realistic to the extremely not realistic. Nightmares are different from night terrors; night terrors tend to happen earlier in the sleep cycle, and do not wake kids up. A child may appear to be awake – night terrors often elicit inconsolable screaming – but is not lucid and will not remember it the next morning. Nightmares wake children up fully, and stick tenaciously in the memory. Kids can explain exactly what they were dreaming of, and why it bothered them.
Nightmares are hard to prevent in a child prone to them, but certain things can help. Turns out the old chestnut of not watching scary movies before bed is true. Watching or even hearing developmentally inappropriate movies, TV shows, video games, or just the news can trigger unpleasant dreams. But the best thing for a kid who suffers from nightmares is simply steady sleep.
“The key to all sleep disturbances is that the kids have to have good sleep,” explains Bencik-Boudreau. “Multiple studies have shown that if the kid is not getting enough sleep, they are more likely to have night terrors and more likely to have nightmares. And so a really good sleep routine – when you do the same thing every night – is important.”
Even then, nightmares are a common occurrence. So when a child has a nightmare, parents need to keep their eyes on the prize: getting the kid back to sleep. The dark of night is not the best time to probe the depths of childhood fears. Things are less frightening in the daylight, after all. A quick fix for nightmares regarding monsters and other bogeymen is “Monster Repellent” – just a spray bottle of water. A few squirts in problem areas like under the bed or in the closet can reassure a child long enough to get back to sleep. Even leaving a hall light on or leaving a door open can help a kid fall back asleep.
“If you have a child who is really upset by a nightmare, I wouldn’t try to delve too much into it in the middle of the night,” says Bencik-Boudreau. “Try to do it in the daytime, when things look a lot better, and try to talk about it and reassure them why that nightmare is not going to come true and why everything is okay.”
Kids can regain a sense of control by drawing a picture of their nightmare and then tearing it into pieces, throwing it away and stating “I know you’re not real.” The best technique, though, is to simply talk about what they are afraid of. If the nightmare is about a traumatic event the child has actually experienced – a kid having recurring dreams about car crashes after witnessing or being in a collision, for example – that can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress, and parents should consult with a pediatrician about treatment options. But even fears about events a child hasn’t experienced – earthquakes, home invasions, floods, fires – are real, and worth talking about with a parent.
“You always acknowledge that their fears are real – that is very important – but then you explain why they don’t need to worry about that,” Bencik-Boudreau explains. “I say, ‘What’s your job as a kid? Your job as a kid is to learn and to have fun.’ And then I say, ‘What’s your parents’ job? Your parents’ job is to take care of that.’ Try to put it into perspective for the kids. You want to take the pressure off of the child and say, ‘Don’t worry about this – this is my job.’”