What to do when your child is having nightmares

by Gillian Klawansky
What to Do When Your Child Is Having Nightmares
Reading Time: 4 minutes
From monsters and being hurt to losing their parents, nightmares in kids are not unusual, yet when they become a regular occurrence, there may be a deeper issue at play. Gillian Klawansky offers strategies for helping your children navigate nightmares and address their underlying fears.

While kids can start having nightmares from as young as three-years-old, it’s more common from about the age of five until around 10, says Joburg-based educational psychologist, Kerri Dimant. During this period, children’s imaginations are also very vivid which likely contributes to their capacity to remember their dreams and be affected by them.

While having nightmares every few weeks or once a month is age appropriate, if it’s becoming a regular occurrence, it’s best to investigate further. “If it’s happening three to four times a week, the child’s sleep is being affected, and they’re in complete distress because of their dreams, there may be a bigger concern at hand,” Dimant explains.

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What lies beneath frequent nightmares?

Understanding why your child is having nightmares so often is vital. Dreams are often our brain’s way of processing our subconscious thoughts and feelings that we can’t tap into when we’re awake, says Dimant.

“Perhaps, they struggle to process that during the day when they’re busy and distracted at school,” she says, “but then at night, the brain starts processing big life transitions or traumatic events.”

Nightmares can also be the result of a scary movie the child may have watched that they don’t have the capacity to understand, which sits in their unconscious mind and emerges as a dream.

“If a child is having nightmares throughout the week, they’re probably struggling with anxiety,” says Dimant, “they’re distressed during the daytime and are not processing what’s causing that distress.” The nightmare is therefore how they process this distress in the absence of their ability to regulate their feelings.

“Parents therefore need to be mindful of whether there any big changes happening in this child’s life, like a move or a new sibling, which can cause anxiety and distress.”

They also need to look at how their child is functioning holistically, whether they’re struggling at school or have recently changed their eating habits.

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Practical ways to manage your child’s nightmares

If you feel that your child is not coping, it may be worth getting them extra support in the form of a child or educational psychologist who can help them process their emotions, says Dimant. It’s also important to inform caregivers and teachers of the nightmares so they can look out for signs of distress.

Regardless of their frequency, Dimant shares the following tips for handling nightmares as they happen:

  1. OK the child’s feelings. By validating their feelings you’re helping the child feel seen, heard and understood. Tell them it’s ok to feel scared or to be crying and allow them to express their feelings in that moment, because it’s very real for them. Listen if they want to talk about the dream, but if not, don’t force them. It’s about addressing your child’s needs in the moment – and more about examining the underlying cause of the dream as opposed to its content.
  2. Regulate then We can’t immediately say things like “You know monsters aren’t real.” Their body is in a flight or fight response in that moment and they’re so dysregulated that any kind of logical reasoning won’t sink in. We need to calm the body down before we can have a logical conversation.
  3. Use regulation techniques. Do intentional breathing with the child, let them sip water or splash their face. Hold, cuddle or rock them, tickle or rub their back or play with their hair. Based on your child’s needs and preferences, do anything you feel will calm them down.
  4. Once the child is calm, then reason with them. We don’t want to feed into the dream. Have a logical conversation with them, saying things like: “Although your dream must have been really scary and it felt real, we know that monsters don’t exist in real life.”
  5. Do whatever you can for your child to feel safe, whether it’s leaving a nightlight on, giving them their favourite cuddly toy, or allowing them to sleep in the bed with you. Whatever will help bring them that sense of safety and regulation is the priority in the moment.
  6. The next day, follow the lead of the child – they will show you what they need. If they seem more regulated, don’t force them to talk about what happened the previous night. If they say they do want to talk, allow them to do so. Some children aren’t strong verbally so it may also help if they express the dream creatively, either through drawing or through demonstrating with their dolls, for example.

How to Help your Child Cope with Nightmares - BabyYumYum

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