For any parent who has awoken in the night to their child’s frightened cries, the experience can leave you feeling powerless and bewildered. Although hugs of comfort are given in the moment, often these parents seek further information – what can they do next time and how can they help their child. For that reason, I wanted to put some information out for parents whose children experience nightmares. Please read on, and try out any ideas below that might fit for your situation and for your child.
Scary dreams can be very common in children and adolescents. And while these nightmares can be a part of normal development, they can also be a result of stressful or traumatic experiences, family conflict, and parental anxiety. Understanding the reasons for such dreams does not make it any easier when it comes to comforting your child after a nightmare. The detailed information below can help you respond to your child during their moment of fear after a nightmare and also help you to set up a bedtime routine that encourages and supports sweet dreams.
Supporting your Child after a Nightmare:
Listening and being supportive of your child after a nightmare is important: it helps reduce their fear and also enhances the secure attachment relationship you have with your child. Try not to force your child to talk about their dream, and do not be dismissive of their dream or their fear. Provide reassurance of their safety. Depending on your child, it can be helpful to get out of bed and have a glass of water. The process of moving into a different room to have the water (moving the body), can serve to dissipate the fear and assist the child in changing their focus of attention.
Once your child has settled somewhat, you could employ her imagination to create a relaxing scene, or images of protection to facilitate relaxation, settling, and to help her fall back to sleep. If you notice that she isn’t easily letting go of the dream, you could help her imagine a different ending to it.
For some children with very vivid nightmares, drawing out what they remember (or scribbling it) and then destroying the paper can create a sense of containment, completion, and empowerment. If you choose to use this method with your child:
Nightmares can be a result of traumatic experiences. Reminders of the event can trigger a nightmare, and so can working through the traumatic experience in therapy (even though containment and precautions are used to minimize distress post-session). The following list of suggestions can be used to increases the likelihood of sweet dreams.
Good luck, and sweet dreams!
Susan Guttridge is a trauma-informed Master level Counsellor with the clinical designation of Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCPA). She has 20+ years experience providing individual and group therapy.