Anxious toddler sleeping

Nightmares can cause problems for both parents and children, not just because they interrupt everyone’s sleep, but because depending on your response, nightmares can contribute to difficulties with sleep onset and/or a long-term night-waking habit.

Anxious children often wake up screaming, or go running to a parent or caregiver’s room after having a nightmare. As a parent or caregiver, your first instinct is to want to soothe your child, which is perfectly understandable. However, how you soothe and encourage your child to cope can make a big difference.

The typical parental response to nightmares

Most parents and caregivers adopt the following strategy:

  • Asking your child to describe the nightmare.
    What were you dreaming about? Tell me what happened in the nightmare…”
  • Reassuring your child that everything is okay.
    Don’t worry. There are no monsters. I can even look in the closet for you, if you like.”
    “Nothing bad happened to me or daddy. You see, we are both here and we love you very much.”

The problem with this strategy is that when you ask your child to describe the nightmare in detail, you’re actually making the memory more vivid: your child is more likely to remember the nightmare! If your child remembers the nightmare, the odds are good that s/he will not want to return to bed or remain alone. S/he might even have the same nightmare again.

The preferred parental response to nightmares

You can significantly reduce the strength and lingering impact of the nightmare by adopting the following strategies:

  • Start with a brief dose of empathy. Use some soothing words, “I’m sorry you got scared,” or a hug, and then return your child to his/her bed.
  • Next, re-focus your child away from the memory of the nightmare, and on to something else. If you do this, soon your child will forget what the nightmare was about. You might say, “Look at your face! It’s all sweaty! Should we go to the bathroom and clean you up?” or, “You’re really upset. Let’s think about something nice; how about we plan what we should do tomorrow?” or, “Why don’t we try doing some calm breathing or relaxation to get you ready to go back to sleep?”
  • You can then recommend some coping tools to demonstrate to your child that s/he has the ability to actively feel better. This can include using tools from his/her My Anxiety Plan (MAP), such as calm breathing or using coping statements, or simply thinking about a fun memory or making a plan for the future. Your child could even read a book or listen to some music for a short while.
  • For older children and teens, they might want to talk about the reason for nightmares. Although the middle of the night is not a good time for an in depth discussion, you can tell your child that dreams and nightmares are how the brain sifts through the daytime images, sensations, and experiences. Dreams and nightmares cannot predict the future, nor do they convey meaningful information about who we are. Rather, the information in dreams and nightmares is like the garbage being processed at a recycling centre; there are treasures (items in dreams), and stinky garbage (items in nightmares). No matter what, the brain has to sift through it all.
  • Finally, with confidence, tell your child the he/she can get back to sleep and have a peaceful night. You can remind him/her if s/he is bothered by other upsetting thoughts or images, that s/he can use his/her coping tools even without your help.