Helping Children Cope with Nightmares
Nightmares are a common occurrence for adults, but they tend to be an even greater issue for young children. Nearly half of all children ages 3 to 6 will experience frequent nightmares at some point. And while nightmares can be extremely unsettling for adults, they at least have the emotional tools to withstand them, process them and move on. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case for small children. They rely on parents and caregivers to help them deal with the emotional fallout of a bad dream.
Typical Childhood Nightmares
Nightmares come in all shapes and sizes. For many adults, the most common nightmare is about being chased, usually by an unknown male figure. Children experience this same chase scenario as well, but for them, the figure usually takes the form of an animal or a make-believe character.
Other childhood nightmares are typically connected to developmental challenges. For instance, a toddler’s bad dream may be about fear of separation from his or her parents. Preschoolers worry about monsters in the dark. And older children struggle with death and other realities.
Thankfully, nightmares are a normal aspect of learning to cope with these new challenges, and not necessarily an indication of a greater problem. But that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t be there to offer support.
Helping Children Cope
There are many ways to calm your child after a nightmare occurs, but your physical appearance is the most obvious and reassuring of them all. Here are a few more tips that might help:
- Stay with your child for a while. This is a good time to let your child take shelter in your arms. It may be difficult for young children to distinguish between fantasy and reality, so begin by explaining that it was a bad dream and that it’s over now. Once your child is calm, offer to leave the bedroom door open and provide a nightlight, if needed. But don’t close the door on a child who is still afraid.
- Talk about it in the daylight hours. Realize that your child may not remember the nightmare unless you offer a reminder. But this is a good time to help your child brainstorm ways to overcome the bad dream. He or she might think of a happier ending, or you might use a favorite toy or stuffed animal to chase the nightmares away.
- Combat nightmares before they occur. Begin by protecting your child from frightening movies and television shows, especially if he or she is under 13 years of age. Focus on calm activities throughout the evening hours. And avoid giving your child caffeine, sugar or other stimulants close to bedtime.
- Never ridicule or tease your child about his or her dreams. You are your child’s greatest ally and protector. He or she needs your support and reassurance to lessen the severity of the dream.
For some children, nightmares can be a terrifying experience. With your support, however, they’ll be long forgotten during the daylight hours.
David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a Psychologist and the Clinical Director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street Columbus, OH 43206 or by phone at 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.