I’ve had nightmares all my life. As an adult, I’ve learned to clear my mind and go back to sleep without jumping right back into the scary dream or losing a lot of sleep. But when I was a kid, I would lie awake for hours trying not to let my eyes close, for fear of having another bad dream. I also did all the usual kid stuff, like crying for my parents, or running into their room, begging to sleep with them (which rarely happened).
My nightmares were fairly routine but, to me, painfully vivid. So today, as a parent, I’m always first on the scene to give comfort when a kid calls out in the night. I’m also apt to encourage our children to get into our bed when they come toddling in after a bad dream. For years, my husband and I have disagreed on the “right” way to help our kids with nightmares. Experts say there are some things parents can do to help with this common childhood problem.
What causes nightmares
Bad dreams can begin at any age, but between the ages of 6 and 10, up to 50 percent of children experience nightmares, according to Dr. Yemiserach Kifle, director of Seattle Children’s Pediatric Sleep Disorders Program. “Depending on what is causing the nightmares, children in this age group can have the same dream over and over again,” she explains. “Twenty-four percent of the time it’s a chronic problem, which we classify as having two to three episodes a week for three months or more. In those cases, I will refer them to a child psychologist who can help get to the root of the problem.”
Kifle says there is almost always a reason for nightmares, and it usually has to do with difficulty coping with changes or stresses in life. Nightmares can be brought on by problems at school or starting at a new school, sleep deprivation, moving to a new neighborhood, or living through a divorce or remarriage. Such dreams can also be a sign of something as serious as mental or physical abuse, or something a parent may not even consider anxiety-producing, such as a routine visit to the doctor.
Listen to the dream
The only way to find out what’s underneath a nightmare is to listen to your child, Kifle says — but not in the middle of the night. “After a bad dream, parents should be reassuring and calming, but not give the dream excessive attention. If the child is out of bed, take them back to their bed to sleep and stay with them for some time to reassure them, maybe even until they fall back asleep. Don’t talk about the dream at that time; wait until the next day to discuss it.” Kifle is not a fan of allowing children to sleep in their parents’ bed; she says it doesn’t induce good sleep habits. “Children of this age should be getting 10 to 11 hours of sleep every night, and the best way to get good quality sleep is without interruptions, in their own bed.”
Barbara Condron, author of The Dreamer’s Dictionary and founder of the Web site dreamschool.org, has studied and interpreted dreams across cultures for more than 12 years. “Dreams are a universal human language that should not be ignored,” she says. “They can teach us who we are, and they are a symbol of what’s going on in our mind. So children’s nightmares can tell us a lot about their feelings and emotions, their thoughts about society, their goals, what they are learning, their habits and their health.”
Condron says parents should be patient and listen to their children to encourage them to share thoughts about dreams. That’s important, because linking a child’s dreams to what’s currently going on in his life can help parents learn to interpret and understand the underlying feelings that may be causing nightmares.
Condron recommends having a daily breakfast routine in which the family can sit down for 15 minutes and talk about the dreams of the night before. One of the best ways to get kids to open up is to share your own dreams (within reason!) and how they make you feel. This kind of listening and support can really help a child work through his fears or anxieties.
Both Condron and Kifle maintain that medication is not the solution to reducing nightmares. Kifle says that, combined with active listening, there are some other strategies parents can try to help children have better dreams: Avoid scary stories, scary movies and violent video games before bed; instead, try reading or listening to relaxation CDs. Kifle often recommends the sounds at childanxiety.net for her patients.
Creating a supportive, peaceful environment makes sense to me, because when I was a kid, I didn’t expect my parents to make my nightmares go away. I wanted to feel safe — but most of all, I wanted to feel heard.
Katie Amodei is a Lynnwood-based freelance writer and mother who still struggles with occasional nightmares.