Last week we started the conversation about dreams. We learned some basic concepts and talked about how you can handle some troubling dreams of your own. But what do you do when your child is the one who is having an issue with dreams. The strategies that you can use to help children combat bad dreams vary from child to child and also vary based on the child’s age and cognitive development. However, the important thing to remember is that when children report being scared by a dream, telling that dreams are not real and that there is nothing to be scared of invalidates their perceptions and feelings. These dreams appear completely real to them and as a result they are in fact very scary. Some children may benefit from a very direct technique that gives them control over the situation, such as giving them a bottle of “monster spray” that they can spray around their room before going to bed and then spray again in the case of a bad dream. However, if a child does not believe in such things or the content of the dream is not something that one can spray for, such as being forgotten somewhere, the parents may need to try a more “grown up” approach.
Parents can teach the child what dreams are and what they represent in their life in an effort to reduce the fear associated with the dreams. For example, the parents may say that dreams are “a way for your mind to connect all the different things that you think about during the day.” Explaining to the child that he or she “made” the dream gives them power over it since they are likely to believe that they would not have created something that would actually harm them. The parent can explain that things that were upsetting during the day are especially likely to end up in a dream because that is something that the child spent a lot of time thinking about. The parents can also help the child think of these bad dreams as ways for him/her to really pay attention to something that was bothersome for them during the day and something that he/she may now have the opportunity to deal with. A really great resource is a children’s book Mommy, Daddy, I had a Bad Dream by Marthay Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. This book introduces the children to a young kangaroo who is having bad dreams and his parents teach him to discover what they caused by from his day.
It is important to note, that nightmares are not the same thing as night terrors. Night terrors generally occur earlier in the night, in a different stage or sleep and rarely have identifiable content. There is a general sense of fear but no specific image or idea. Night terrors occur as the child transitions from one sleep stage to the next. Usually a parent learns that their child is having a night terror not by the child running into the parents’ room due to fear, but by parents running into the child’s room to make sure that the child is not hurt since his screams suggest that he is. There is unfortunately nothing that parents can do about night terrors, and parents are generally unable to comfort a child experiencing a night terror. Another important distinction is that after experiencing a nightmare a child may be reluctant to return to sleep, but after a night terror is over the child is most likely to calm him/herself down and resume sleeping. Also unlike a nightmare, the child rarely remembers in the morning that they have had a night terror.
The last thing a parent wants to do in the middle of the night is deal with a screaming child who is refusing to go back to sleep because of a nightmare. The benefit of the above technique is that, with some practice, children may be able to process their nightmares on their own and just go back to sleep without waking anyone up, which is goal.