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5 Tips for Managing Nightmares

boy sleeping nightmares

What to do when blissful sleep is interrupted by nightmares. Credit: slightly everything

As parents, we deal with lots of overnight fun. From wakeful nights to overnight tantrums to our kiddo’s nightmares, the wee hours can include lots of good times. With all of the scary ghosts and goblins that are out and about during the week of Halloween, we thought it would be a good idea to share these tips from Dr. Tom Jackson, who has 30 years of experience with nighttime issues in children through his position as medical director of a public mental health clinic and a private practice.

Tomorrow we’ll share tips on preventing nightmares, but today we’ve got tips for managing nightmares while they’re happening or just after.

5 Tips for Managing Nightmares

1. Don’t ignore it. Whatever you do to help your child deal with nightmares, DO NOT ignore his cries in the middle of the night. If you do feel yourself becoming angry, frustrated or impatient with him (such as for waking you up), take a few moments to breathe deeply and calm yourself before walking into the child’s room. The one thing you don’t want your child to feel at this critical moment is any sort of anger, frustration, impatience or other lack of support from you.

2. Go to your child immediately. Stay alert to frightened wakings in the middle of the night, which is easiest to do if your bedroom is close to your child’s, but if not, consider installing a baby monitor. As soon as you hear your child waking up frightened (screaming, crying, whimpering, etc.), go to him immediately and reassure him with comforting words, soothing him just as you would if he became frightened by an event during the day. You can employ any number of additional strategies for dealing with your child’s nightmares as they occur.

3. Comfort and calm your child. Cuddle with your child. Gently stroke his head or back. And listen to your child’s fears with empathy, understanding that his fears are perfectly real, and should not be discounted under any circumstances. If your child wishes to discuss the nightmare, by all means encourage it. Then offer reassurance and comfort until your child has calmed down sufficiently to return to sleep. Keep in mind that if your child is afraid to go back to sleep, this may require your staying in the room until that time comes. If he is very frightened, you will need to do whatever is required to help him calm down, possibly by reading a story or enjoying a simple, distracting and—above all—relaxing activity together. Or perhaps lie down with your child or even let him join you in your bed. You may find it helpful to provide a nightlight in your child’s room, but make sure it isn’t casting scary shadows or you’ll defeat the purpose of its being there.

4. Remind your child that it was only a dream, but don’t expect that to settle the issue. Remember, however, as you sleepily grope for the right thing to say, telling a very young child, “It’s only a dream,” is unlikely to help since young children don’t yet understand that dreams aren’t real. With children who are at least three or four years old, though, it may be helpful to remind them that they were dreaming, although they, too, may still have difficulty understanding the nature of dreams.

5. Empower your child to take charge of her dreams. Remind your child that he can think comforting thoughts to soothe himself as well. Suggest, for example, that he imagine the nightmare scenario ending in a happy manner. Don’t underestimate this method, for it helps teach your child to conquer his nightmares by actively imagining taking charge of the scene. This activity may also help him develop confidence, self-esteem and a sense of proactive control over his responses to issues in daily life. As in waking conflict, unpleasant dreamtime scenarios typically include stages of threat and struggle. Whatever methods you follow, look at the nightmares as opportunity to help your child learn to use the innate tools he has for achieving resolution of his fears and confidence in his ability to face up to the frightening events of his life—both sleeping and waking.

Have you had to deal with your kids’ nightmares? What tips would you share? —Erin

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