Nightmares. Nobody really wants to talk about them, but as parents (of young children), we know it is only a matter of time before we face this particular parenting debacle.
“Nighttime fears and nightmares are extremely common in children, especially during the preschool years. They are part of normal development as children’s imaginations develop, and they begin to understand there are things that exist that can hurt them.” (The Sleep Foundation)
Did you know?
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.
So on this Halloween, we thought it might be helpful to share 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 her coping skills.
Talk about what it means to be brave. Try teaching her 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. This is a great way to introduce many good and not-so-good behaviors, for future reference.)
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.
This could be a stuffed animal, a blanket, or a lovie. This will help your child feel more relaxed at bedtime. Which means YOU might actually get to relax.
6. Keep a nightlight in her bedroom.
A nightlight is great, as long as it doesn’t keep your child from falling asleep (that would obviously be counterintuitive). We love the Kid’Sleep Classic clock and sleep trainer from Claessens’ Kids. It comes with two faces: a classic nightlight and a sleep trainer. You can even set two alarms at once: one for bedtime and one for nap time. The clock face changes to “day time” (the happy, dancing cow) when it’s time to get up! My four year old hasn’t napped (except for an occasional snooze in the car) since she was two-and-a-half, and we literally caught her attempting to tunnel out of her bedroom with a toy, metal spatula. (I kid you not.) But ever since we put the clock in her bedroom, Savannah now respects daily “Quiet Time” (she actually looks forward to it), and mommy gets a little break. It’s a win-win. She LOVES her “big girl clock,” and we love it, too!
7. Avoid scary television shows, especially right before bed time.
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 bed time. (See tip number 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 to count 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. It’s literally impossible. 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 own 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 is better for you to stay with her in her space, then to 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 his or her own 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!