What are nightmares in children?
Nightmares are bad dreams that can cause children to wake up feeling scared and upset.
It’s normal for children to have nightmares about:
- realistic dangers like aggressive dogs, sharks or spiders
- imaginary fears like monsters
- distressing events they’ve seen or experienced.
Depending on their language ability, children can sometimes tell you about their bad dreams in detail.
Nightmares tend to happen in the second half of the night, when your child is sleeping lightly and dreaming. Some younger children might find it hard to get back to sleep after a nightmare.
Nightmares are common in children of all ages, but they’re especially common when children are around 10 years old.
Tips for dealing with nightmares and bad dreams
Children often wake tearful and upset after a nightmare. Young children can find it hard to tell the difference between dreams and reality. As children get older, they’ll get better at understanding that a dream is just a dream. But they still need comfort from you after a nightmare.
Here are ideas to help you handle your child’s nightmares and bad dreams:
- 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 that they’re safe. A kiss and a cuddle might help your child settle again.
- Let your child know it’s OK to feel scared after a nightmare. Avoid dismissing the fear or saying that your child is being silly, because nightmares can seem very real to children.
- If your child has dreamed about monsters, explain that monsters are only make-believe. You could say that make-believe things might be scary, but they can’t really hurt children.
- Be patient if your child talks about a nightmare the next day. Listen to your child’s worries – don’t dismiss or downplay them. Calmly talking together about the bad dream can reduce its emotional power. But if your child seems to have forgotten about a nightmare, it’s probably best not to raise it.
- As your child gets older, encourage your child to see a bad dream as something they can recover from, then go back to sleep on their own. You could use praise – for example, ‘You didn’t need me for long after your bad dream last night. You were able to settle yourself really well’.
Try these ideas if your child has a lot of nightmares, or is dreaming about the same thing over and over again:
- Gently ask your child about interactions with other children, television shows, computer games or other daytime experiences. Then you can help your child avoid experiences that might be triggering the nightmares. For example, if your child has been watching Doctor Who and having nightmares about aliens, it might be a good idea not to watch it for a while.
- Help your child change a recurring dream. For example, if the dream often involves a scary alien, suggest that your child has a magic wand in the dream to make the alien disappear. Encourage your child to come up with ideas about being a hero in the dream. Your child can go over these ideas in their mind during the day.
- Make sure your child is regularly getting enough sleep.
- If your child is prone to anxiety or stress, think about how you can help your child relax before bedtime.
It can be a good idea to seek professional advice if your child is having nightmares and is also having a lot of anxiety during the day.
Also seek help if your child has nightmares after going through a traumatic event – for example, a natural disaster like a bushfire, a car accident, a school lockdown and so on.
What causes nightmares?
Occasional nightmares are normal. If your child has nightmares every now and then, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong emotionally. You don’t need to worry.
Children with vivid imaginations might have nightmares more often than other children. Again, you don’t need to worry. Children who sleepwalk or have night terrors are also more likely to have nightmares.
But if your child is having a recurrent nightmare, or particularly bad dreams, your child might be experiencing some kind of stress during the day.
Traumatic events can also cause nightmares. If a child has experienced some type of traumatic event, they might have nightmares about it for several weeks or months afterwards.