The next morning, I asked if she remembered her bad dream and what was it about. She recounted an odd tale that included her friends from pre-school not being very nice. And spiders. We talked a little about what happened in the dream, and then I asked about school and had something happened with these friends. Sure enough, the dream was a manifestation of some anxieties that were starting to develop at school (all the kids are nervous about the transition to Kindergarten, it seems). And she's never been a fan of spiders, so her psyche just threw those in for good measure. I did my best to reassure her, we talked about ways to handle stuff at school, and that she can always come get me if she sees a spider. My daughter seemed reassured and we went on with our day.
Nightmare or night terror?
Just as grown-ups have bad dreams from time to time, so do kids, and particularly young school aged children. Children about Kindergarten through 2nd grade are, developmentally, understanding real-life dangers more and more thoroughly. As this understanding develops, fears arise, and they may manifest themselves in your child's dreams. Additionally, stresses over situations and transitions in their life can affect dreaming - moving, for example, or the loss of a pet.
Don't confuse nightmares or bad dreams with night terrors, however. Night terrors are more common in younger children, and usually are more distressing for the parent as the child actually sleeps right through them. During night terrors, children seem to be awake, often screaming and extremely agitated, but they aren't awake at all. Children having night terrors are difficult to comfort while a child having a nightmare can be comforted. If you suspect your child is having night terrors, talk to your pediatrician.
Reassurance and communication
If your child has started having nightmares, a bit of reassurance and comforting can go a long way. When your child first awakes from the bad dream, just holding them and reassuring them that it was just a dream may be all you can do. Helping them back to sleep may take a little time and some backrubs.
If your child wants to tell you about the dream, great. You can reassure on specific themes, whether it's something related to family, friends, school, or just the big scary world in general. If your child doesn't want to tell you about the dream, you can still reassure - mostly that you are there to help and keep them safe - and to listen when they are ready to talk.
Set the stage for good dreams
While you can't necessarily prevent bad dreams, you can set the stage for a good night during the bedtime routine. Keeping the bedtime routine calm, positive, reassuring and consistent can help some kids head off bad dreams. Making sure your child is getting enough sleep overall can help, too. My anxieties get exacerbated when I'm overtired, so it only makes sense that my child might react in the same way. You could also establish a ritual to "ward off" bad dreams - sending bad dreams "out the window" before they even start or something like that. Make use of your child's imagination to help manage his imagination.
When I was growing up I had a recurring bad dream for a couple of years. I was a little embarrassed about it, embarrassed that I had bad dreams at all, silly as that is. It wasn't until I finally told someone - in this case, my older sister - about it that I was able to stop having them. As my dream was about fire in my house, my sister was able to help me review what we could and would do in the case of a real fire. Admittedly this is a simple example, but once my base concern was addressed I was okay.
If your child has recurrent bad dreams and your usual approaches aren't helping, it might be time to talk to your pediatrician about other ways to help your child through the fears or other issues that might be affecting dreaming. Reassuring your child, also, that bad dreams are common and most kids - and adults - have them can help them, too. Sleep is absolutely precious, and bad dreams interrupt that necessary body and mind rest and recharging. Getting to the root of bad dreams can help make dreaming sweet again.
Tell us: How do you help your child cope with a bad dream? Comment below!
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