Nightmares and Your Children

Helping Your Child Conquer Nightmares

Nightmares are terrifying for everyone, even adults. Children are often affected even more, calling out for their parents in fear after waking up. Luckily, by about preschool age children are able to differentiate dreams from reality, including nightmares. So, calming them down is doable and it’s possible to reduce your child’s likelihood of having bad dreams.

Soothing your Child

Since completely eliminating bad dreams is impossible, it’s best to know how to handle the situation when it arises. The first thing you should remember is that these fears are very real to your child, so making light of or dismissing them isn’t a good idea as this can make your child feel foolish for their feelings. Next, you should reassure your child of their safety and your status as a protector. Children naturally feel safer around their parents. Holding them and using a soothing voice are simple and effective.

Coping Skills

A more advanced technique for dealing with this issue is to teach your child specific coping skills. A great coping technique is for you to have them tell you what was wrong in the dream and then have them retell it as if it went right instead of wrong. For example:

Your child has a nightmare about a monster in their closet and are woken by being afraid of that. There are several ways for them to turn that dream around. The simplest way is that there was no monster in the closet, or that it was cute/harmless. More complex stories like them being able to scare the monster off or have their favorite hero come and defeat the monster can also work. The key is to have them imagine the situation play out in a way that comforts them.

Teaching them your own coping skills that you have or had as a child can be extremely beneficial as it shows empathy. Having your child take a moment to just think to themselves that it “isn’t real,” while being sure not to downplay your child’s emotional response, can have a positive effect.

Once your child has a grasp on their coping technique, you should try allowing them to soothe themselves, while staying just out of their room and line of sight, so that they learn to deal with these negative feelings on their own. It shouldn’t become a habit of either you going to them or them coming to your room when they have a nightmare. Of course, if something especially terrifying occurs in their sleep, exceptions should be made.


More often than not, prevention is better than a cure and nightmares are no different. Your child should have a fairly rigid sleep schedule; same time, same activities such as reading (which helps greatly with promoting sleep). Deviations in the routine can unnerve or excite your child, which isn’t what you want right before bed.

Security objects can play a vital role in your child’s well being, giving them something to hold onto when they feel uncomfortable and providing comfort. Giving you child a stuffed animal or blanket when they are young and allowing them to keep it as they age, deciding for themselves when they give it up, is common and helpful.

You should spend time with your child in the dark, especially in their own room. Try reading with a flashlight instead of with the lights on. A nightlight can be a transitional way to make them more comfortable with the dark. Playing games in the dark outside their room can be beneficial as well, such as flashlight tag.

If your child is easily frightened, avoid scary or creepy books or television before bed. In fact, it’s best to avoid screen time before bed altogether as it over-stimulates your child’s brain. This is why reading is one of the most beneficial bedtime activities.

Medical Issues

Something not to be ignored, sleep issues can indicate undiagnosed health problems. You should listen to your child’s explanation of their nightmare experiences as they may be having night terrors or sleep paralysis, which can be indicators of other issues – physical or psychological, or both (psychosomatic).

If your child continues having sleep issues despite your best efforts, it is best to contact a medical sleep professional to have them assess and to come up with a plan to address any issues. Contact Dr. Shukla for all of your sleep health needs.

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