Help! My Child Is Having Nightmares!
Getting your child to go to sleep and stay asleep in their own bed through the night can be an ongoing challenge for many parents. For those going through it, it can feel as though they’re living a nightmare of their own. Lost sleep caused by repeated interruptions leaves them feeling groggy, exhausted and irritable the next day, dreading the repeat that awaits them at day’s end. Identifying the cause of sleep disruptions is the first step in helping your child – and you – get back to a good night’s sleep.
Adults often have issues sleeping because of stress, excessive consumption of caffeine and poor sleep hygiene. Having said that, it’s easy to wonder why a child might not be sleeping well. Thankfully, sleep issues can be fixed quickly if you follow our sleep guide.
Two common causes of sleep disruption in children are:
- night terrors
Although people sometimes use the terms interchangeably, these are two different things. A nightmare takes place while the child is asleep and is an unpleasant or scary dream that is memorable when they wake, but a night terror involves the child screaming and thrashing violently while asleep because of feelings of intense fear.
What Causes Nightmares?
Often times, nightmares (and happy dreams) in children are triggered by stress or anxiety-causing events that have happened in a child’s life recently. Adults sometimes fail to perceive the stress that children experience because of their day to day interactions or conflicts they may witness in the home.
While you may see a conflict between a child and her best friend from the point of view of an adult, knowing it will likely soon blow over, she is still learning about the nature of conflict and it may cause her feelings of stress that she does not know how to manage. Likewise, seeing a conflict between you and your spouse that you know is no big deal might feel a little scarier to your child if they’re not used to seeing you snap at each other.
Certain stages of social development correlate more closely with nightmares, and they are very common in children who are starting or have just started school. Fears and big changes can also be nightmare triggers, often causing repeats of the same bad dream.
Types of Nightmares in Children
Doctors have studied sleeping and dreaming for many years, but as with many facets of the brain in action, dreams can be difficult to scientifically quantify. We know what the brain does when it dreams, that dreaming is nearly universal to a healthy brain whether we remember it or not and that dreams can be triggered by certain external factors, but we do not know why human beings experience common dreams. Certain dreams – falling from a tall building or running away from an unknown attacker, for example – are extremely common and reported by many people.
Despite the many ways in which a person could dream themselves into a scary scenario, these two primal fear-inducing tropes pop up surprisingly often. Children have common dreams as well, some of which are similar to those experienced by adults, and others that are more reflective of their level of life experience and their day to day existence. Some common childhood nightmares include:
Kids are faced with a lot of terrifying creatures guest starring as big baddies in their shows, movies and books so it’s not particularly surprising that many kids having nightmares report dreams of attacks by animals like tigers, lions, snakes, crocodiles and alligators. This suspicious lineup is often present in fables or cautionary tales for kids, and the animal generally represents some kind of fear your child is facing.
The “Monster” Under The Bed
Big scary monsters are another common trope in children’s media as well as a major oral tradition, no matter how silly, in most every culture. They represent a fear of the unknown, the threat of something terrible and not understood. These particular nightmares might surface after a conflict the child has with a loved one, as they might be processing feelings of negativity toward someone they love that they are unaccustomed to.
Creepy, crawly and expressly forbidden from the house, some kids like bugs, but few like nightmares about swarms of insects. These especially gross nightmares can be triggered by anxious and insecure feelings in kids, especially after big routine changes like a move to a new town.
Whether it’s by an animal, monster or something else entirely, kids commonly report scary dreams about being consumed by something frightening. This dream can be triggered by feelings of smallness and powerlessness in the child, but can also have to do with repeated attempts to alter a child’s undesirably limited diet.
Objects Behaving Strangely
A dream about a teddy bear coming to life sounds cute, but in reality, many kids have bad dreams about their toys taking on a life of their own. This can range from simply creepy to downright terrifying depending on the contents of the dream. This particular childhood nightmare tends to stem from someone the child is familiar with acting in a way they’re not used to. If grandpa is sick and he’s seemed a little crankier than usual or a years-older sibling who used to wants to play now needs alone time, a child might dream about their toys coming to life.
Losing You/Being Lost By You
This is as scary an idea for your kids as it is for you. You are their lifeline in this world, and when they’re faced with big separation-based changes like the first day of school, a trip with grandma and grandpa or an overnight at a friend’s, their anxiety may manifest in the form of dreams about being left behind or forgotten. These dreams may also happen after a day out at a crowded or particularly busy place where these things most often take place. They may also have dreams of being somewhere they’ve never been before with no idea where to go or what to do. These dreams can be due to big changes, like parents splitting up or changing schools.
As previously mentioned, this is a universal human dream. It is experienced by people of all ages and in all cultures, and simply reflects the fear we all have toward the negativity and stress that exist in our lives. Problems at home, at school or with friends might leave a child dreaming that they’re being chased, just as those same problems trigger the dream in adults. The dreamer runs as a manifestation of the avoidance of their bad feelings.
It’s scary to think that your worst fear would ever appear in your child’s dreams, but one common childhood nightmare is being taken by either strangers or someone unwanted in the child’s life. Another common nightmare is confinement, which can be connected to a kidnapping scenario or occur independently. These dreams often reflect a loss or lack of control felt by the child. They may feel like they are being forced to submit to a change or situation they do not like, which manifests subconsciously as a scary deprivation of autonomy.
How to Stop Childhood Nightmares
Most nightmares in both children and adults are caused by psychological stress. The most important thing you can do is talk to your child on a regular basis about their feelings and what’s going on in their life. Ask about school and learn about your child’s friends and social life. Never be dismissive of their interests or concerns and always be willing to listen when they want to open up to you.
Be Supportive During Big Changes
Helping your child to feel loved, supported and heard during times of big change can help to relieve some of their stress and anxiety. Cosleeping is a great way to show your baby support.
Be Open About Dealing With Family Tension
If things have been tense at home, a family meeting where everyone expresses their feelings with an open mind and finds a resolution can be a great way to squash nightmare-causing stress.
Be Proactive About School Issues
If school is causing an issue for your child, meet with their teacher to discuss your mutual observations and work to find a strategy that feels right for everyone.
Be Present, Teach Healthy Socialization
When your child chooses to open up to you about problems with friends, listen and take them seriously. The subject matter might not be relevant to you, but your child’s feelings and their anxiety and tension are. Teach them how to deal with conflict and form a healthy sense of self confidence so when they deal with conflicts in the future, they will handle them easily and with less anxiety.
Childhood nightmares can certainly be a plague for both kids and parents, but by talking to your kids on a regular basis, they can often be avoided. Giving kids a safe space and coping tools to open up and diffuse their stress allows them to move forward from those feelings in a healthy way and sleep soundly, a relief to everyone involved.