Help Children Recover From Nightmares
Most sleep disorders in children represent a phase that the child will soon grow out of. If your child is experiencing nightmares or night terrors it's comforting to get familiar with each of these particular challenges. For information on night terrors, see The Truth About Night Terrors and Children. To help your child develop a healthy sleep schedule, see Help! My Kid Won't Sleep. This article addresses common nightmare themes for children and gives practical advice on how to help your child overcome fear of sleeping and change the dream if it returns.
What is a Nightmare?
The difference between a dream and a nightmare is the fear of the dreamer. Two people might have exactly the same dream, but may react very differently. When a child is frightened in a dream, his or her body releases adrenalin into the bloodstream, the heart races, and may experience the feeling of being frozen, unable to move or shout for help. This is a normal and natural physiological response to fear.
Children are likely to perceive dreams as real events. While you may be tempted to comfort a child by telling him the nightmare is only a dream and not real, you'll better serve a child by helping him face his fears.
It's interesting to note that according to psychologist Jane Teresa Anderson, many people who no longer remember their dreams were either told by their parents that their dreams were not valuable or were frightened by one too many nightmares into turning off their dream recall.
Dreams, even nightmares, help kids work out the stress of daily experiences. Your child's nightmare helps make sense of the world. Having the knowledge to talk to your children about their dreams and their fears will help to overcome them.
What To Do During a Nightmare
Dream expert Jane Teresa Anderson advises NOT waking a child who is clearly having a nightmare. Instead, simple stay with the child then ask in the morning if he or she remembers any dreams. If the child doesn't a dream, let it go.
If a child wakes from a nightmare, reassure him that everyone has scary dreams sometimes. You can ask for a description of the dream. Ask her lots of open-ended questions:
- How did you feel?
- What happened next?
- What was the scariest part?
Take Control Over Nightmares
A nightmare is really just a story your child's brain is telling. The key to overcoming the nightmare is to take control of the story. This is a great technique by dream expert Jane Teresa Anderson. Help your child tell the story of the dream and even draw, paint, or make with clay the scenes of the dream. Help your child tell the story of the big-bad-scary in as fine a detail as possible. This may seem counterintuitive, but stay with me - there's a point.
The next step is to help the child make up a better ending for the dream. (I like to suggest using magic wands or other magical powers available to the child. That way you can equip her with this magical power at bedtime.) Now you're ready to re-create the dream story using the happy ending. This teachers your child to face her fear and that she has the powers within her to overcome fearful situations.
Remind the child at bedtime about the power to change a dream while it's happening.
It's also important to investigate what stressful situations in your child's life may be causing the dreams in the first place. The neat thing about this technique is that the skills learned cross over into waking hours too. It's always a good thing to gain confidence in your own power.