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Nightmares

Fight Against Nighttime Monsters: How to Help Children Cope with Nightmares

January 24, 2019, Author: Tamra Cater

Nightmares

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My daughter had a nightmare a few weeks ago that resulted in her walking up screaming for me. When I heard her scream, it sounded like she was in pain or sick. When I walked into her room, however, she would say, “Spiders!” and “It hurts!” She then picked up her pillow, and pointed under it, and said, “Look!” Oh god…. is all I thought. Spiders are my own worst nightmare.

After checking to make sure there weren’t actual spiders in her bed, I calmed her down and she went right back to sleep. However, when she got up the next morning, she continued to talk about spiders and would point to her room and say, “Spiders!” She’d even run and get into my lap as quick as possible as if she was scared that a spider was going to get her.

I checked again to make sure there were no spiders, and there weren’t any. I was left with, “How do I help her cope with nightmares, so it doesn’t develop into a fear of her bed?”

What are sleep terrors and nightmares?

I’m pretty sure my daughter had experienced a nightmare rather than a sleep terror when she was talking about the spiders. However, there is a difference between the terms, sleep terrors and nightmares. Sleep terrors are more severe than the dreams we refer to as nightmares. Sleep terrors do occur during deep sleep, and they tend to occur early during the night. Most children will outgrow sleep terrors by late adolescence. My daughter has experienced a sleep terror, and this is when she would start screaming and crying in the middle of sleeping. We’d try to pick her up, calm her down, but nothing would work. She’d continue to scream and cry, and it seemed as if she was still asleep the entire time. We couldn’t wake her up, which is something that typically happens during a sleep terror.

Nightmares, on the other hand, take place during our lighter stage of sleep known as rapid eye movement sleep.

What are some potential causes of nightmares?

Some possibilities include the following:

  • Anxiety: Kids that have more anxiety during the day may be more likely to have nightmares.
  • Scary movies/tv shows: Remember that it’s more difficult to children to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.
  • Stress: a family move, fight with a sibling, for example.
  • Trauma: Could be from a natural disaster, abuse, etc.

How should we help children cope with nightmares?

1.Validate their feelings: If they seemed scared and anxious about it, validate their feelings. You could say, “I know that was scary. But, I’m here now.” Be careful not to dismiss their feelings.

2.Give them some control over it

My daughter and I walked into her bedroom that day and pointed to the bed and said, “Go away spiders!!” We essentially fought back, so the spiders were no longer around in her mind!

3.Let them know they are safe:

As mentioned, tell them, “I’m here for you. It’s ok now.” Continually reassure them.

4.Be careful about scary movies and tv shows: I was about 5, and my sisters were watching Poltergeist, while I was awake and while they were babysitting me. Needless to say, I had nightmares that night. Even some movies that are less scary than that could be a trigger for a nightmare.  For example, I had a nightmare after watching Ghostbusters when I was younger.

5.Talk with your child about the nightmare to help them cope:

You could ask what happened in the dream. Sometimes, if we can talk things out, it becomes less scary for us. We could also ask them to rewrite the story to make it even less scary.

6.Read a book with your child about how to cope with a nightmare

This one has good reviews and suggests that the story line can help children understand that nightmares aren’t real (Click the image for more information):

My daughter and I worked through the nightmare, and she’s not scared of going to bed. For some, however, nightmares can become more consistent, and it can result in a fear of going to bed or even going into that room. If this is the case, it might be a good idea to talk to your health care provider about how best to handle it.

 

 

comments (10)

  • avatar image
    Night terrors are so scary! My son would wake up throwing tantrums and there wasn’t anything I could do! It was like he wasn’t coherent! He didn’t understand or hear me! Once I woke to him kicking kid door and his foot was bleeding! All I could do was relocate him. He would never have any recollection of it happening! Such a scary thing as a parent!

    Meghan

    March 14, 2019 Reply
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      I agree! My daughter would be so incoherent, and there wasn't anything I could do either. She'd just scream and scream, until finally, it would just end. It seemed we could only comfort her.

      Tamra Cater

      March 14, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    Great message! It's so important to validate. My daughter is almost 9 and I catch myself frequently forgetting to validate. Even when it's something that seems so small to us, it may be much bigger to them and we need to validate. Thanks for the great tips!

    Tricia

    March 14, 2019 Reply
    • avatar image
      Thank you!

      Tamra Cater

      March 14, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    These are some great tips! Thankfully my youngest hasn't had nightmares or terrors yet but these are some great things to keep in mind in case it happens as she gets a little older. Thanks for this!

    Elizabeth Bookout

    March 14, 2019 Reply
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      That’s good that your youngest hasn’t experienced that yet. It can be tough when they seem so inconsolable!

      Tamra Cater

      March 14, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    Nightmares are scary for adults but at least we can distinguish them from reality. My heart breaks anytime any of my kids have nightmares. Luckily mine haven't really haven't had long-lasting effects from any of their nightmares as your daughter did. Hopefully, no more spider dreams for her. My youngest did suffer from night terrors and that was horrifying for us both. She was terrified of me and wouldn't let me near her.

    Traci Weinhart

    March 15, 2019 Reply
    • avatar image
      That’s a good point, in that we can distinguish them from reality while kids can’t. My heart breaks too when it happens’

      Tamra Cater

      March 15, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    Great post! My son is 3 and starting to have a few bad dreams. This was very helpful and we’ll be trying som of your suggestions. Thank you!

    Trina

    March 16, 2019 Reply
    • avatar image
      Thank you! I hope it helps!

      Tamra Cater

      March 16, 2019 Reply