Nighttime fears and nightmares are a common occurrence among children. According to research, up to 50% of children between 3 and 6 years of age experience frequent nightmares.6 These nightmares, however, are part of normal development as children’s imaginations develop, and they begin to understand that there are things that exist that can harm them.7 Still, as a parent, you may be struggling to deal with your child’s nightmares. In this article, I’ll share tools you can pack in your hypothetical “nightmare tool belt” to help your child with this issue.
What Causes Nightmares in Children?
While there’s no exact cause of nightmares, they might be connected to your child’s worries and fears.8 Their fears can come from all kinds of things and places, such as real-life experiences (life events including trauma and stress), their imagination, genuinely dangerous things (snakes, spiders, etc.), or something they’ve seen on television or read in a book.1,2 Maybe they even heard something “spooky” from a friend at school or encountered an unfriendly human or animal in the neighborhood.
Preschool-aged children (and younger) tend to be more afraid of imaginary creatures like monsters. (Have you noticed this yet? We sure have!) Older children tend to be anxious about “more realistic” fears, like burglars and natural disasters. Nightmares are most common in children aged around 10 years.1,2
9 Tips for Helping Children Deal With Nightmares
Having an understanding of what your child may be going through is a fabulous place to start — but you will want to have a game plan for that initial middle-of-the-night, blood-curdling scream. Trust me. I don’t know about you, but I am not my sharpest at 2 a.m. Here are nine ways to deal with your child’s nightmares:
1. Try To Understand Your Child’s Fears
Don’t immediately discount them, and do not make fun of them, no matter how irrational their fear is. Try to remember what it was like to be a kid. Their fears are very real to them! So, treat your child, their fears, and the nightmares that stem from those fears with respect. Research tells us that mindful parents who are empathic toward their children’s emotions can help their children reduce their stress, aggression, anxiety, and depression.3
2. Reassure Your Child When They Are Afraid
When dealing with your child’s nightmares, it’s essential to validate and acknowledge their feelings. This can help reduce their stress when they are feeling overwhelmed.3 Remind your child that they are safe. Then tell them again! Assure them that it was only a bad dream and that you’re there for them.
3. Train Their Imagination
If their mind can conjure up scary stuff, they can also use it to combat the scary stuff!4 For instance, if they had a bad dream about an alien, you could ask them to imagine that they are a superhero with special powers to get rid of the alien. Or if they had a nightmare about a crocodile, get them to use their imagination and think about something happy, like singing Happy Birthday instead. Realizing they can direct their thoughts from scary to funny or empowering is huge for their confidence to manage or rid themselves of nightmares.
4. Identify Their Triggers
Try to figure out what is happening before bed to see if you can problem-solve and find their triggers. Are they too wound up? Were they watching a particular TV show? Was it a tough day at school? Did they have enough time outside in the sunshine that day? Whatever it is, keep track of when nightmares happen (or not) to see if you can do anything practical about them. You can also help your child learn coping strategies like not watching triggering shows or reading scary books before bed.8
5. Encourage a Nighttime Routine
Bedtime routines help our minds get prepared for sleep. The more relaxed and calm we are, the better our sleep quality. So, ensure you establish a good wind-down routine with your little one — reading stories, having snuggles, and listening to some soft or calm music should do the trick.5,8
6. Make the Dark Fun
Dealing with nightmares often includes addressing a child’s fear of the dark. Try to make the dark less ominous. Play hide and seek or flashlight tag. Have a dance party with glow sticks. Or put glow-in-the-dark star stickers on their ceiling! Just maybe not at bedtime. 😉
7. Introduce a Security Object
Help your child find a security object, something they can sleep with every night to help them feel safe and secure. This could be a stuffed animal, a blanket, or a lovey that will help your child feel more relaxed at bedtime. Which means YOU might actually get to relax.
8. Keep a Nightlight in Their Bedroom
A nightlight can be an excellent addition to their bedroom, as it will provide a little brightness. This can help them feel safer at night. As long as it doesn’t keep your child from falling asleep (that would be counterintuitive), this can be a great idea.8
9. Teach Your Child Relaxation Techniques
If they are old enough to understand, teach them simple relaxation and calming techniques, like counting to 10 or taking deep breaths. They can try a mindfulness activity, like imagining they are lying on the sand next to a beautiful beach. You can’t be afraid and relaxed at the same time! Teach them that when they wake up from a nightmare, they should practice their relaxation techniques.
Dealing with your child’s nightmares can be scary for both you and them. But using these tips should help make the process a little easier. Also, don’t forget to offer a lot of praise when your child makes strides to deal with their bad dreams on their own using the techniques you’ve taught them! The more sleep your child gets, the more sleep you get. And we need all the beauty rest we can get, mamas!