Do you remember any dreams you had as a kid?
I certainly do—but I don’t remember many of the good ones. Instead, I mainly remember nightmares.
Nightmares are a pretty common occurrence in childhood, often disturbing even the highest quality sleep. In fact, the Sleep Foundation notes that roughly half of children between the ages of three and six report frequent nightmares. Despite their frequency, nightmares can be distressing for both children and parents. While the little ones wake up feeling frightened, parents can feel helpless and unprepared when it comes to helping kids with nightmares.
However, nightmares don’t have to be so scary. By following a few basic steps and implementing simple strategies, it’s possible to help kids avoid the fear and anxiety that often accompany bad dreams.
Without further ado, let’s learn how to help kids with nightmares.
What Causes Nightmares?
We all know what nightmares are—distressful dreams that often stay with children long after waking up—but where do they come from?
Unfortunately, scientists still don’t know the exact causes behind nightmares. What we do know, however, is that nightmares often happen when children are dealing with stress. This stress may be due to trouble at school, family drama, bullying, or a large lifestyle change like moving to a new city.
Nightmares may also be caused by a child’s trauma response, scary media like creepypasta, or an exceptionally active imagination.
What we do know, however, is that experiencing nightmares is a totally normal part of being human. In fact, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine notes that up to 85% of adults report having the occasional nightmare! Furthermore, nightmares aren’t all bad. Some even say that nightmares are a way for kids to process difficult emotion.
This doesn’t change the fact that nightmares can be distressing for children—even those that are mature enough to take public transportation and have their own smartphone. If your child is experiencing an overwhelming amount of nightmares, read on to learn how to help kids with nightmares.
How To Help Kids with Nightmares
Create a Calming Bedtime Routine
When kids go to bed feeling safe and secure, the chances that they experience nightmares are significantly reduced. One way to promote this nurturing aura is to establish a calming bedtime routine that your child can follow every night before they climb under the covers.
As you work together to establish a good routine, consider incorporating activities that promote relaxation and prepare kids to rest. Take turns reading a chapter from a book aloud, help your child brush their teeth, then put on some calming music as they change into their pajamas and climb under the covers. Make sure to avoid overly stimulating activities, like staring at a smartphone’s blue light, as they can increase your child’s energy levels and thus the likelihood of nightmares.
Establish Good Sleeping Habits
Creating a calm bedtime routine is just the first step to helping kids deal with nightmares. The second step lies in helping your child get a full night of quality sleep.
Kids need more sleep than adults. According to the CDC, kids from 3–5 years old require about 10–13 hours of sleep per night, while kids aged 6–12 need 9–12 hours of sleep. Teens, on the other hand, require less sleep at only 8–10 hours per night.
In addition to ensuring that your child gets enough sleep, it’s important to maintain a steady sleep schedule. This means that your kids should fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day. By doing so, their circadian rhythm remains consistent and promotes higher quality sleep—meaning fewer nightmares!
Calmly Listen to Your Child’s Fears
There’s no way around it: Nightmares can be downright terrifying. When your child wakes up from a bad dream and inevitably comes to you for comfort, don’t make things worse by rolling over and going back to sleep. Instead, do your best to calmly listen to your child’s fears.
Encouraging your child to express their feelings and fears is crucial in addressing nightmares. By actively listening and empathizing with your child’s concerns, you validate their emotions and help them feel safe. Discussing their dream vocally can also lessen the dream’s power, thus helping kids move past the fear.
Talking about your child’s feelings can also help them gain reassurance that they’re not alone in facing their fears. Until they’re ready to deal with it themselves, they have you to lean on.
Teach Relaxation Techniques
When kids experience nightmares, they often wake up with tense bodies and anxious thoughts. Equipping your child with relaxation techniques can empower them to manage their fears and put their body and mind at ease, lessening the impacts that nightmares can have.
Mindfulness strategies, for example, can help kids redirect their focus away from the nightmare as they work to calm down. Here are a few examples of techniques that are great at helping kids deal with anxiety:
- Intentional breathing. Show your child how to take a finger and draw an eight on their palm. Then, teach them to breathe in as they draw the top half and breathe out as they complete the bottom half.
- Check in with the five senses. To help your child ground themselves in their environment, teach them to check in with their senses. Try naming five things they can see, four things they can feel, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste.
- Make a grateful list. Instead of focusing on their worries, help your child redirect their mind to a more positive place by making a grateful list inside their head. Encourage them to think of as many things they’re grateful for as possible. If all goes well, they’ll fall back asleep thinking of things they love, instead of things they’re afraid of.
Create a Safe Sleeping Environment
A cozy and reassuring sleeping environment is absolutely essential when it comes to helping kids deal with nightmares. Waking up in a safe space can help kids feel protected and at ease, even if they just had a tremendous night terror.
To create a safe environment, begin by placing your child’s favorite blankets or pillows on their bed. Then, encourage them to sleep with a stuffed animal or doll nearby. Sleeping with a toy friend gives the child somebody to care for—if they wake up after a nightmare, they may take on the role of brave caregiver as they remind their stuffie that the dream isn’t real.
Similarly, if your child is afraid of the dark, ensure that their room is well-lit with a nightlight. Close closet doors, lower the blinds, and don’t hesitate to check under the bed as you tuck them in.
Seek Professional Help if Needed
While most nightmares are harmless and fade over time, some kids may experience persistent or extreme night terrors. Such dreams can impact daily life and disrupt sleep patterns. If this is the case, don’t hesitate to ask for help from a professional.
Child psychologists are masters at knowing how to help kids with nightmares. In fact, talking about the problem with a health professional can help your child confront the emotions that come with consistent nightmares. In doing so, the professional can help your child feel safe and at ease as they approach bedtime.
Where’s the Nightmare? Nowhere!
Nightmares are no joke. They’re scary, surprising, and often anxiety-inducing. Knowing how to help kids deal with nightmares can be a challenging experience—but with the right strategies and support, nightmares can be effectively managed to a tee.
These tips are simple to execute and powerful in purpose. By creating a calming bedtime routine, establishing good sleeping habits, listening to your child’s fears, teaching relaxation techniques, and creating a cozy sleeping environment, you can help your child navigate their nightmares and maintain restful, peaceful sleep.
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