Nightmares: the basics
Nightmares are bad dreams that can cause children to wake in fear and distress. Your child might have nightmares about:
- a realistic danger, such as aggressive dogs, sharks or spiders
- imaginary fears, such as monsters.
Depending on their language ability, children can often recall the content of a bad dream in detail. Some younger children might find it hard to get back to sleep after a nightmare.
Children often wake tearful and upset after a nightmare. They will want comfort from you. As children get older, they’ll get better at understanding that a dream is just a dream.
By seven, your child might be able to deal with nightmares without calling you for comfort.
Tips for dealing with nightmares
- If your child wakes up because of or during a nightmare, explain that it was a bad dream. Reassure your child that everything is OK and safe. A kiss and a cuddle might help your child settle again.
- If your preschool-age child has dreamed about monsters, you could try explaining that monsters are only make-believe. Explain that made-up things might be scary, but they can’t really hurt children. Avoid making fun of the nightmare or saying your child is silly for worrying. Nightmares can seem very real to little children.
- If your child talks about a nightmare the next day, be patient. Listen to your child’s worries – don’t dismiss or downplay them. But if your child seems to have forgotten all about a nightmare, it’s probably best not to raise the topic.
- If your child is dreaming about the same or similar things over and over again (a recurrent nightmare), explore sources of stress or fright in your child’s day. You might gently ask your child about encounters with other children, television shows or other daytime experiences. If you can work out the source of the nightmares, you can take measures to stop or reduce your child’s exposure to the disturbing events.
What causes nightmares?
The occasional nightmare isn’t a sign of emotional disturbance and need not be cause for concern. In fact, nightmares are often the product of a vivid imagination.
But if your child is having a recurrent nightmare, or the content of the dream is particularly disturbing, he might be experiencing some kind of stress during the day.
Trauma can also cause nightmares. If a child has experienced some type of trauma, she might have nightmares about it for several weeks or months afterwards.
It can be a good idea to seek professional advice if your child is experiencing nightmares together with high levels of anxiety during the day. Also seek help if nightmares are part of your child’s response to a traumatic event.