How to Help your Child Deal with Nightmares

Good nights sleep

When we sleep our brains process what has happened to us during the day.  New experiences (good and bad) present challenges that require additional processing, so dreams are often more vivid following an eventful day.

Children’s lives are full of new experiences which makes them much more prone to vivid dreams and nightmares than adults.  Therefore, the first thing to bear in mind when helping your child to deal with a nightmare is that it is a consequence of their day which is more often than not filled with a plethora of new experiences and learning opportunities.

This blog will outline 4 key techniques that will help your child to deal with nightmares whilst also building their confidence in managing their emotions and experiences thus protecting them from problems with anxiety, depression and low self esteem both now and later on in life.

1. Settling down

At the end of every day make sure that you child has a chance to talk about their day.  This way you can support them to begin processing their experiences, set a precedent for talking about problems and make sure that your child is never left alone for too long with a worry or problem.

This approach will give your child the message that they are important and that you are interested in them; demonstrating this on a daily basis will build your child’s self esteem and confidence to a level that will protect them from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders that are driven by core underlying low self esteem (e.g. eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder {OCD}, panic disorder) both now and in the future.
Ask them to tell you 2 good things and 2 bad things from each day, then help them to explore what made each experience good and bad and then work out a plan to solve any remaining problems (e.g. talking to the teacher together the next morning).

2. Reassure

When your child wakes from a nightmare they will be scared and disoriented, they will need a little time and space to get their bearing so as a first step just sit quietly with them and gently reassure them that you are there and that they are safe.  Whatever time it is try not to rush past this step until your child is completely calm.

If your child is happy to go straight back to sleep steps 3 & 4 can be carried out in the morning, if not move on to these once your child is calm. Step 3-4 are covered in the second part of this blog.

3. Listen

Here, the theory is easier than the practice, especially at 3am.  However, when dealing with childhood nightmares you have to play the longer game, keeping in mind that using these strategies will future protect not only your child’s psychological well being but also restful nights for both you, as one of the main symptoms of mental health disturbance in both adults and children is disrupted sleeping patterns.

Encourage your child to tell you about their nightmare and validate their experience, remembering that to them it felt real and very scary, so try to resist the temptation to say, ‘it was only a dream’, this gives the impression that you do not either understand, believe or value their experience which will increase their anxiety and have a detrimental effect on how they cope with this experience and future experiences.  Instead actively listen to your child, show an understanding of their fear, ask questions and demonstrate a real interest in what has happened in their nightmare.

4. Problem Solve

First share your own experience to show your child that theirs is normal e.g. ‘I sometimes have scary dreams that make me feel very afraid and it helps me to sit up in bed, turn on the light and talk to mummy/daddy about what has happened’.

Then think with your child about ways to make them feel safer and happier both in the dream itself (e.g. think of a ‘magic’ rhyme that they can use in the dream to wake themselves up or make the bad things go away) and when they wake up.

This will build their confidence and reduce feelings of anxiety about future nightmares.  And finally remind them that if there is a problem they should call you because it is your job to make sure that they are ok.

If your child’s nightmares appear to be getting worse (either more intense or more frequent) this may be a sign of a more complex problem. In this instance it is advisable to speak to a Clinical Psychologist or Counselling Psychologists.

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