A number of parents email me concerned about their children having nightmares and want to know how to help. Sometimes the cure is obvious. Take the case of my neighbor who, during a family movie night, selected a movie that appeared to be family friendly but had a disturbing ending. Her two youngest children were so bothered by the misfortune of the main character that they could not sleep and had bad dreams. In this case, the movie’s story was too much for those young minds. It is not just violence, language and sex that adults must screen for before choosing a movie. Sometimes the themes are too adult and disturbing for children to handle. Nightmares can result.
Between the ages of three and six, nightmares occur for two developmental reasons: 1) Fears begin to develop 2) A child’s imagination is very active. Being overly tired, getting irregular sleep, dealing with stress and anxiety all increase the possibility of nightmares. In rare cases, nightmares can be caused by genetic factors so always check with your pediatrician before assuming cause.
A study published in the journal Sleep found three common traits in children with nightmares. These traits were noticed as early as five months of age. According to the study, children who tended to have nightmares had difficult temperaments (based on ratings by mothers), were restless during the day and were anxious and difficult to calm down
Nightmares are often a way for children to cope with unpleasant events or change in their lives like divorce, a death, beginning school, moving, etc. So if you have a child experiencing nightmares, think about his or her daily life and see if you can identify reasons for him or her to feel anxious or out of control. Make sure the culprit isn’t watching scary media. It took me years to get over the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz!
Here are 7 tips to help a child with nightmares:
1) Add a nightlight to the bedroom.
2) Keep the bedroom door open.
3) Briefly check under the bed and in the closet for “monsters.”
4) Offer lots of physical reassurance when a child wakes up scared.
5) Give the child a special blanket or toy to keep him or her company.
6) Make sure the child is following a regular sleep routine. Keep the routine upbeat and soothing.
7) Pray with your child before he or she goes to bed and ask God to give him or her sweet dreams. Remind your child that angels watch over him or her.