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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?
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.