Everyone suffers from nightmares, but they are exceptionally common in children. As is often the case in sleep-related sciences, the reasons for this are not entirely clear. However, it's widely suspected that the bad dreams are a result of children’s overactive imaginations coupled with their ongoing cognitive development and inability to properly process new experiences. In other words, their sleeping minds, grapping with a host of strange feelings and new stressors, create bad dreams as coping mechanisms.
However they form, a child's bad dreams can be cruel and confusing. And they're hard to comfort, especially since dreams are, by nature, quite vague. As a parent, how should you handle those situations when your child wakes you in the the night, startled by a recurring nightmare? And what measures could you take to prevent nightmares from happening in the first place?
We asked psychologist Dr. David D. J. Palmiter, Ph.D, who specializes in childhood and adolescent issues, to shed some light on how to deal with — and prevent — a child's dark dreams.
How should a parent approach their child's recurring nightmares?
Well, the best answer I have is to treat any mental heath problem as you would any dental health problem: Go see an expert, a child psychologist who is trained to deal with these topics. Recurrring nightmares could be a sort of prelude to other types of psychological duress and this is very complicated territory. But if you get there quick and early in the process, they’re treatable.
Okay. Level with us. Most parents won’t likely seek a psychologist after a few bad dreams. So, besides seeking help, what can they do in the moment when they want their child to relax and fall back asleep?
First, here's what not to do: In the moment, many parents will come into bed with their children, but I’m not a big fan of that, because that becomes a matter of coping and could have side effects. I would only resort that as an act of charity, never a norm, when anxiety is a pattern.
Something you can do in the middle of the night, however, is encourage some deep breathing. A child’s muscles are usually pretty tight when they’re anxious — they’re like an uncooked piece of pasta. So have them close their eyes, put their head back and breathe deeply from their belly; doing this for two or three minutes will calm then down and make them more able to talk — or even fall back asleep.
How do you approach the topic of dreams with them?
By asking questions and listening. You want to get a full detail of what the child is thinking first. So often we want to correct the problem quickly and jump to solutions. This is only natural, and comfort is important, but it creates a steamrolling effect. Instead, you should speak with a lot of questions marks instead of periods or exclamations – “What was happening?” “Was that scary?” “What are some things you saw?” – and a lot of sentences that are assured – “I understand that that must’ve been scary.” It’s amazing how important empathy and understanding are to a kid. Kids will share more and more when asked. We as parents might not like what we’re hearing but at least they’re telling us what’s on their minds. I’d also suggest, in the morning, having them write it out as a way of understanding the images.
What are some ways to prevent nightmares in the first place?
Well, healthy lives often help reduce nightmares. So make sure the kids are getting enough exercise – at least an hour a day – and make sure their diet is balanced. Avoid giving them caffeinated beverages and highly processed carbohydrates. And make sure they’re getting enough sleep in the first place.
And routines are key.
Very. Promotion of daily, weekly, seasonal rituals is a way of letting them know their life is stable. Planes may be crashing and bombs may be going off but we go to temple every Saturday. Routines help reassure.
It’s also safe to assume that over-stimulation should be avoided.
Absolutely. Nightmares are one of the most common symptoms of overstimulation. Be careful of letting your children play too many video games, watching too much TV and, especially, letting them on the internet too often. Monitoring is key — make sure cellphones and devices have parental controls. And remember: The American Psychiatric Association recommends no more than two hours a day of sedentary electronic media. I can’t stress that enough— tracking and limiting is key.
Is there anything else?
Yes. Research from the APA suggests that we parents underestimate the stress our kids our under. We love our kids so much that we ignore certain stressors in them. Leave your own stress at work, don’t talk about your marriage around your young kids or bring up money issues when they’re within earshot. Such conversations can exacerbate mental stress and morph into nightmares.
Easier said than done.
Of course it is. We’re crazy people. Kids make us crazy. We want the best for them, and sometimes we don’t realize we’re adding to their problems. Parenthood is a big tidal wave that takes us knees over elbows. We have the best intentions, but we need to realize that they’re sensitive to everything we do. The best thing to do, above all else, is to listen to their dreams and to them; that's all they really want.