Nighttime fears and nightmares are a common occurrence among children. According to research, up to 50 percent of children between 3 and 6 years of age experience frequent nightmares.1 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.
These fears can come from all kinds of things and places — maybe something they’ve seen on television or read in a book. Maybe they 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 more anxious about “more realistic” fears like burglars and natural disasters.
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.
Tips for Helping Children Through Nightmares
I’m sharing a few tools you might want to pack in your hypothetical Nightmare Tool Belt to help you deal with your child’s nightmares. Here we go…
1. Try to understand your child’s fears.
Don’t immediately discount them, and do not make fun of them — no matter how irrational. Try to remember what it was like to be a kid. To your child, her fears are very real. Treat her, and her fears, and the nightmares that stem from them, with respect.
2. Reassure your child when she is afraid.
Tell her she is safe. Then tell her again. Assure her that it was only a bad dream.
3. Teach coping skills.
Talk about what it means to be brave. Try teaching your child to meditate on positive things, to “think good thoughts” in the face of fear. Tell her to pray aloud when she is scared. Help her to memorize scripture that can be recited aloud when the nightmares come. You can also try reading her a book featuring a brave heroine who overcomes her fears right before bedtime. (This is called modeling and is a great way, in general, to introduce many good and not-so-good behaviors.)
4. Make the dark fun.
Dealing with nightmares often includes dealing with a 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. Put glow-in-the-dark star stickers on her ceiling. Just maybe not at bedtime. 😉
5. Introduce a “security object,” something she can sleep with every night to help her feel safe and secure.
6. Keep a nightlight in her bedroom.
A nightlight is excellent, as long as it doesn’t keep your child from falling asleep (that would obviously be counterintuitive).
7. Avoid scary television shows, especially right before bedtime.
This should be an obvious tip for dealing with nightmares, but sometimes it’s hard to remember what “scary” was when you were a kid. Always observe what your child is watching and try to see it through their eyes. Eliminate those things that are borderline creepy or downright scary to avoid inspiring nightmares. Instead, try reading something positive and uplifting before bedtime. (See tip three above.) We always pray for safety and “sweet dreams.” This is part of our nightly routine. And we all know that routines are important, especially at this age.
8. Teach your child simple relaxation techniques.
If they are old enough to understand, teach them relaxation and calming techniques, like counting to 10, to take deep breaths; teach them to imagine 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.
9. Set limits, and teach her to stay in her bed.
Once you allow her to get out of bed, it will happen over and over again. DO NOT allow this to happen. If she needs you, go to her. It’s better to stay in her room and space than allow her to come into your space. She HAS to learn to be comfortable in her own room, in her own bed. If she comes into your room in the middle of the night, be firm. Take her back to her room. Help her to settle down and then return to your room.
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 her bad dreams on her own using the techniques you’ve taught her! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with rewarding your child for good behavior (like being brave enough to stay in their big kid room). The more sleep your child gets, the more sleep you get. And we all know we need all the beauty rest we can get, mamas!