Nightmares can occur to anyone of any age, and it causes distress, anxiety, fear, and terror. Children, especially pre-schoolers, tend to have dreams more often, and it can be a helpless feeling when we see our children crying in fear.
Nightmares usually happen when the brain is active during sleep. The brain processes realistic images, hence the child feels like he’s really experiencing it. This triggers the distressing emotions of the child. This part of sleep is also known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep. The eyes are moving rapidly beneath the eyelids. Children from pre-school age onwards usually understand that a nightmare is just a bad dream. However, the strong negative emotions on top of the explicit images in their mind will still frighten them.
As much as we would love to remove nightmares permanently from our kids’ minds, it’s not a possible task. What we can do, though, is to try to make their sleep as peaceful as possible.
Regular bedtime routine.
Introduce a sleep schedule to your child, have the same sleep time and wake-up time, even on weekends and holidays. This is to have your child get comfortable and regulate his body clock, this way it will be easier for him to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.
Make the bedroom sleep-friendly.
Dim the lights, have your child’s comfort blanket or plush toy beside her, and maybe even play a soothing lullaby in the background.
When the bedroom feels cozy and peaceful, the mind and body will start to relax, and it will be easier for your child to drift off to dreamland. If your child is afraid of the dark, have a small night light at a corner of the room to feel more secure.
Avoid scary movies or TV shows before bedtime.
Half an hour before bedtime should be filled with calming activities such as reading your child’s favorite animal book, taking a bath, or talking about the day’s events.
Spending quality time with your child will not strengthen your bond. Still, it also helps to regulate your child’s emotions and give assurance to her.
Don’t Avoid what is scaring your child.
If your child recently watched a scary cartoon channel involving dolls and became afraid of her own toy on her bed, do not turn it away from her.
Your action is affirming to her that the toy is indeed scary and will only escalate her fears. Instead, try to make a joke about her doll, or tell her that her toy is an angel protecting her from the monsters in her nightmares.
As time passes, the more she sees her toy, the more she will use it, and the more the fears will diminish.
Turn the nightmare into humor.
There was once my son was having a recurrent dream about a monster plant. I told him, “Tonight when you dream of the monster plant again, try imagining yourself holding your nerf gun, and you are shooting at it until it poofs into the air!” This made him laugh, and it settled his nerves before he drifted off to sleep.
Give them the assurance that they can turn their nightmare into something silly, funny, or magical. When they realized that it is not as scary as it seemed, it will be easier to soothe their fears.
Talk to your child about the day’s events.
It is vital to have a heart-to-heart chat with your child whenever possible. I try to do it daily, to show them that I care and mainly to know their feelings. Ask open-ended questions. The more information you can obtain from your child, the better you will be able to understand his day in school. Sometimes, it can be evident that your child does not have the day of his life when he comes home from school. You can find opportunities to have a chat with him, ask him why he looks so upset. Could it be his best friend who did not want to play soccer with him? Or did he get a scolding from his teacher, and he was feeling upset about it?
Events that made him upset or frustrated can trigger negative thoughts. These thoughts turn to images replayed during his REM sleep.
Have your child draw out or describe his nightmare.
Sometimes, nightmares can be recurring, and it will affect their sleep.
My 7-year-old son loves to draw, and I will get him to draw out his dream to see what he sees in his mind. When we can understand the nightmare, it will be easier for us adults to reassure them.
By talking about the nightmare, they might realize that it is not as scary as they thought. Pleasant dreams should never be forgotten too. Good dreams make them feel happy, and it is good to talk about them or draw them as an art piece.
Get professional help.
If your child is having recurrent nightmares and behaving anxious or nervous during the day, it might be a sign to seek out professional help. A trained psychologist will be able to ease the negative feelings and emotions through different activities that we are not able to conduct.
Children who experienced trauma or the loss of their loved ones have problems expressing their feelings. Usually, they will turn into troubled adults if not treated early.
What can you do?
If your child wakes from a scary nightmare, the very first thing he needs is your comfort.
Never push him away or force him back into bed on his own. It will elevate that fear, and your child will end up fearing his own bedroom. We all know what will happen when the kid has not enough sleep. It will be a terrible day for us.
Nothing is more comforting than the warmth of mommy’s or daddy’s snuggles. Reassure him that it was just a bad dream and that everything is OK. Allow your child to tell you about the nightmare, or ask him nicely what he was dreaming about. Validate that dream, and say to him that it is all right to feel scared. Let him know that you are here for him and gently reassure him to go back to bed when he calms down.
Nightmares normally do not happen often, but when they do, make sure you work your magic and love. That is all your child needs to calm down, and do not forget to have fun by turning that nightmare into something silly or funny!