I must admit, bad dreams happen to the best of us. No one is immune. When adults experience bad dreams or nightmares, it is generally due to stress in their everyday life or resulting from illness or an unresolved traumatic experience. But when children experience bad dreams, although stress, illness or traumatic experiences affect them as well, it is mostly due to their underdeveloped interpretation of life.
Most children under the age of seven are still developing emotionally and are learning about the world that surrounds them. They will not yet have the capacity to decipher reality from imagination while they dream, which can cause them extreme stress.
Studies show that, in most cases, when children reach the approximate age of seven, they are better equipped to self-soothe and go back to sleep on their own. This is why age-appropriate toys, films, and television programming exist to avoid fearfulness and insecurities in developing children.
I always consider these tips to help my children through their traumatic nighttime experiences and to restore calm and a sense of security.
1) Let them express themselves
If they have enough vocabulary to describe their dream in detail, I let them express themselves and never minimize their experience. They will look to you for assurance that they are safe, and that sharks were not really chasing them in the pool.
2) Take them to the place where they are experiencing fear
Whenever possible, I take them to the location in the house where they believe giant spiders and growling bears were ready to pounce on them and show them that they are not really there. If the dream was at a specific location like their favourite park, I take them there the following day to reassure them that all is well.
3) Prepare a homemade spray
Prepare a spray with a pleasant essential oil like lavender and water, and call it something like “nightmare dissolver”. This can help them believe that they had a hand in ridding the family of the scary monsters. I always store a flashlight near their beds and hang a dream catcher near their windows to make them feel more secure.
4) Share your own experience
After you have calmed and reassured them, share your experience with a bad dream when you were their age, and how you felt about it. This will help them feel that this happens to everyone and that they are not alone.
5) Read them books with happy endings
Reading age-appropriate stories about nightmares and successful endings might help them realize that everyone can have bad dreams and that they will be OK. The popular book, The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Dream is also available as a YouTube video and can be watched by the entire family to show support.
6) Monitor what they are watching
If your child is having recurring dreams, it would be a good idea to monitor what they are watching, or reading. If you discover that they are regularly watching a program that they don’t understand with an older sibling, or are having exchanges with other children that are upsetting them, you should step in and talk to them about it.
7) Talk with a pediatrician
When your child appears seriously traumatized by a recurring dream or theme, it would be wise to discuss with their pediatrician to rule out any underlying issues.
Although you can’t prevent nightmares from invading your child’s dream time, you can make sure that you set up their night time routine with pleasant and relaxing activities. Stories and songs that are uplifting and filled with loving themes or fun yoga stretches to get them tired and relaxed will allow your child to drift happily into a safe and joyful dream.
Angela, Your Sleep Expert