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Helping Children Cope with Nightmares

Does your child suffer from recurring nightmares? Do you find your child trying to keep awake at bedtime for fear of the next scary dream? Is it difficult for your child to fall back to sleep at night after being awakened by a dream? If so, don’t fret, there are tried and true ways to help children tackle these scary dreams.

A simple fact is that all of us dream – every night. We don’t always remember all our dreams, but it has been proven that in order for us to maintain our mental health, we must be allowed to dream. Most of us have also experienced frightening dreams, specifically, dreams with images or content that would terrify us, were they to actually occur in real life.

As adults, it is easier for us to separate the concept that what is really frightening about an unsettling dream is not necessarily the dream itself, but the fearful consequences if the dream were to actually happen. It is important to keep this concept in mind when helping children to cope with frightening dreams. Even though it is helpful and necessary to help children cope with their nightmares, dreams are a wonderful experience that children should be encouraged to continue to enjoy.

Here are some tips to help your child get the most satisfaction from their dreams:

  1. Acknowledge your child’s fear. Although we all know that monsters are imaginary, a child’s fear is very real. An understanding ear along with reassuring hugs will help.
  2. Explain to your child that dreams are opportunities that free your mind of all the restrictions of the waking world.
  3. Help your child to understand a way to cope with scary dreams by comparing dreams to the way that a film is made: Have your child take the role of the movie director in their own dream. The director can tell the “actors” in their dream to change the way they do things when the dream is getting scary. Let your child know that in dreams, it is okay for them to be both the director and one of the actors at the same time. In fact, if your child is old enough to understand the concept, you can explain that they “own” their dreams and are actually the creator and players in their dreams, even when monsters appear.
  4. Right before bed, have your child imagine the type of dream they would like to have.
  5. If your child is convinced that, whatever they do, a monster will still appear, help your child to develop a “Battle Plan.” Ask your child to identify the monster’s weakness, and then to “arm” themselves with the necessary items when in the dream. In this way the monster can be defeated.
  6. Note that the child makes up their own rules for their particular “Land of Dreams.” Although these rules may not make sense in the real world, don’t try to change your child’s mind. So … if your child decides that the best way to defeat the monster is by tricking it into eating a pink marshmallow – so be it!
  7. Suggest to your child that they can bring a “defender” into their dream to help them out. Let the child pick out the defender, but try to steer your child away from choosing real people. You can suggest a favorite stuffed animal, a toy soldier, or another imaginary ally.
  8. Present the above ideas with confidence and conviction to your child. If your child is convinced that an intervention will work in the “Land of Dreams”- it probably will.
  9. Take time to talk about dreams with your child, both fun and scary, during the full light of day. Learn to enjoy the limitless possibilities of the “Land of Dreams” together!