Nightmare & Negative Thoughts Guide
Nightmares are a common occurrence among children of all ages, varying in frequency based on the individual. Nightmares are often highly upsetting and can cause children to wake up in tears. Young children find it next to impossible to differentiate between dreams and reality, leading them to feel like they are living their nightmares out in the real world. As they get older, they improve their capacity to make this crucial differentiation - but often still need comfort from you after they wake up. Nightmares are inevitable and not within our control as parents. However, what we can control is our response to our child’s fear of their own dreams. Following are some strategies on how to compassionate manage and guide your child to overcome their night terrors:
1. Help your child calm down
Most children wake up from a bad dream panicked - oftentimes resulting in a physiological response such as a rapid heart rate. Instruct your child to take slow, deep breaths until they return to a regular heart rate. This can be done by using soothing words and a soft touch.
2. Anchor them in safety
It is recommended that you do not dismiss your child’s experience with the phrase "it was just a dream". It is important to remember that the child experienced this as real, so we don’t want to undermine the terror they experienced. Instead, instruct them to look around the room and recognize that they are in a safe, familiar place - which will then prove to them that they were stuck in a dream before they woke up. You can narrate, "Here's the shelf with your books, chair, table, toys" and so on. It will help them move from the scary dream to the reality that feels safe and comfortable. It is recommended to keep a small flashlight under their pillow to help with orienting themselves when they wake up from nightmares.
3. Praise them for waking up
They had an unpleasant experience and got out of it by waking up. They should be encouraged to pat themselves on the back and be proud that they did not stay entrenched in the nightmare for too long. Remind them that although it is not always easy, they can wake themselves up from all nightmares by acknowledging it is in fact a bad dream. This message will restore the child's self-confidence - they are actually in control. Although they came to you in a panic, they were the one that saved themselves from the scary dream after all.
4. Explore the content of the dream
Now that they feel calmer, it is a good time to check in with them regarding what the dream was about. If they answer, "I dreamed about a monster", try not to say "there are no monsters". In their world, this was real. Instead, encourage them to explain what they saw - what did it look like? What did it want? What do they think that the monster from the dream is afraid of? You can brainstorm a friendly monster together that you can call on for help when they encounter scarier monsters. Remember - knowledge is power. The more we know about the monster, the less terrifying and the more abstract it is. The child will almost always happen across all the answers themselves - and with the answers come solutions.
5. Find strengths in the way they behave in their dream
Help your child find strengths in the nightmare plot. For example, if they ran away from the monster and woke up in a panic, they likely outran the monster. Plus, they have the ability at all times to wake up when they’re stuck in a dream. Other qualities that frequently stand out in bad dreams are courage, wisdom, kindness, good intuition, sophistication, and creativity. Help your child recognize the strengths that they brought to the table. A bad dream gives us a chance to see how we are capable of coping. Giving your child a chance to recognize the positive from the negative can be exceptionally empowering.
6. Character symbolism
Remember that the characters in the dream are symbolic and are very likely related to your child's inner world, even if they don’t represent 1:1 characters from reality. It is easy to remember this when it comes to monsters, but it is also worth remembering when your child grows up and their dreams become more complex. Whether the characters in the dream are from real life or not, you should invite your child to elaborate on the role these figures takes and how they played into the plot of the dream.
7. Highlight the choice they have in dreaming
Once you debrief the plot and the characters, ask them if they would like to return to the dream. It will intensify their sense of choice, autonomy, and authority. Explain to them, "if you’d like, you can return to the dream and make changes in it, or even dream about something else." Children often prefer to dream of something else but the mere knowledge that they have a choice restores their sense of safety. From the possibility of choice, their fear is neutralized.
8. A reminder that all thoughts come and go
Your child might be afraid to go back to sleep. Many parents tend to say, "Don't think about the nightmare", which is counterproductive, despite the good intentions. When we deliberately try not to think about something, we ultimately end up thinking about it. If we tell our child “Try not to think about the monster” guess what they are thinking of? Monsters. Instead, explain that a scary thought or image is just “a thought”, and if not given special focus, it will actually go away. You can even supply your child with a mental image of ocean waves, which illustrates the fact that thoughts, like waves, come and go. This tends to help stop panic and instead encourage flowing with whatever else comes their way.
9. Encourage sharing, discourage repression
If something constantly bothers us and we avoid confronting it, chances are it will appear at a time when we have no control over our thoughts - for instance, in the form of a bad dream. Explain that to your child and encourage them not to run away from their scary thoughts during the day but rather to think about and share them in order to find solutions and overcome them so they won’t appear as bad dreams.
10. Inquire about the dream
Find a suitable time to discuss your child’s nightmares and address their coping mechanisms. The conversation about their nightmares ideally will take place during the day, when your child feels safe and open talking about it. Rather than dissuading your child from thinking about and sharing their distressing dream, encourage them to divulge details in the safety of your presence. If a bad dream returns, this oftentimes indicates stress. If the bad dreams continue - it’s time to turn to a professional.
We are in a unique position as parents when navigating the terrain of our childrens’ nightmares. We have the power to show them that productive conversation and practice demonstrate that they actually have nothing to be afraid of, and that they have the power to cope. These conversations are aided by the Nightmare Survival kit, a therapeutic workbook that enables children to develop coping skills and fear-reduction tactics. This workbook uses CBT-backed, evidence-based exercises to help children address the issue of nightmares and empower them to look forward to a peaceful night’s sleep. This workbook is also geared for kids to use when they wake up in the middle of the night from bad dreams and need to redirect their thoughts. Between your support, gentle touch, and the strategic approach of the Nightmare Survival Kit, your children are in excellent hands to end up sleeping comfortably and in peace.