The world can be a scary place for a child; they’re constantly absorbing new people, situations, experiences — but sometimes, the scariest place for a child is their own mind. And suddenly, you’re facing a terror you can neither see nor protect them from: their nightmares. Part of you might feel overwhelmed, even powerless, when you try to imagine dealing with an invisible enemy, but it is an enemy you, as your child’s hero, can indeed defeat.

Understanding Nightmares

A nightmare can seem so terrifyingly real to a child that it startles them awake in the middle of the night. A bundle of confused, frightened tears, they may not only struggle to go back to sleep, but may also in the future be reluctant to go to sleep at all. While the concept of nightmares is still a bit elusive, the most common causes in children are overtiredness, emotional or mental stress, as well as trauma and certain medications. Every child is different, and you know yours best, but here are four methods you can use to help your child sleep more soundly at night.

1. Have a positive, relaxing bedtime routine

Having a consistent bedtime is important, but it is equally as important that the bedtime routine is relaxing. One of the most effective ways to do this is to turn off screens (such as tablets, iPads, phones, TV) and bright lights at least an hour before sleeping. This will help to minimize their stimulation and encourage the production of melatonin (the “sleep hormone”). Others ways to foster a positive, relaxing bedtime include:
  • Reading a cheerful book together
  • A warm bath in a bathroom with lowlights
  • Having an uplifting conversation about their day
  • Encouraging them to visualize happy things
These are all ways you can help your child sleep more soundly, as well as encourage them to have sweet dreams. In that lull between dozing off and falling asleep, it’s common for our minds to drift, so if you can inspire your child to focus on positive things before they fall asleep, chances are they will have a much more peaceful night.

2. Create a safe sleep environment 

Nighttime is a vulnerable time for a lot of children, not only because of the dark, but also because of the association of sleep with nightmares. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.  You can transform your child’s sleep environment from one of uncertainty and fear into one of peace, safety and comfort, with just a few creative integrations.  You can use mood lighting to soften the darkness, such as a night light of their favorite character or glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling. White noise or calming music are powerful but subtle ways to ease the harsh silence of a dark room. For children with strong imaginations, you might consider going to the extra step of checking under the bed or in the closet to assure them they are, in fact, safe in their room.

3. Build their confidence

One of the most frightening aspects about nightmares is the helplessness we experience within them. You try to run away, but you just can’t run fast enough; you try to defend yourself, but your arms won’t lift from your sides; you try to scream, but no sound leaves your mouth. For a child who is still learning to differentiate reality from a bad dream, the fear can be so real that it cripples their self-esteem in the real world. Actively helping your child to build their confidence will not only serve them well in the long run, but it will empower them in the present. See if your child is open to talking about the nightmare during the daytime; this often loosens the grip the nightmare has over them. You can encourage them to change the ending of the nightmare, having them rewrite it in a positive way. You can also suggest they draw the nightmare and then rip up the drawing to symbolically rid themselves of it.  Often, children do not remember their nightmares the following day, but if they do, these are all different methods for healing from the scary images they dreamt of.

4. Be present and offer comfort

Sometimes, a warm bath wasn’t enough. A night light won’t fix it; they don’t want to talk about it — sometimes, the only thing that can help is you. Snuggle up, give them their favorite blanket or stuffed animal, and gently bring them back to the present. Validate their fears and the fact they had a nightmare, and then reassure them it’s over, that you are there to protect them now, and they are safe once again.

Reach out for additional support

If your child develops chronic nightmares, or you notice the nightmares become more extreme, consider reaching out to the team at Mazzitti & Sullivan EAP. Trained in adolescent counseling, with a deeply ingrained sense of service, they are always ready to help you both. You can contact them by calling (800) 543-5080.
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