Mommy, I’m Scared!

There’s nothing worse than being awakened from a sound sleep by cries or screams coming from your little one’s bedroom. You jump out of your bed as fast as lightning and tear down the hall in seconds flat. Minutes later your heart stops pounding when you realize that it’s just a bad dream. Relief floods your body and you begin to do all the things you do to reassure your child and soothe him back to sleep.

If you have a child between the ages of 6 months and 6 years you’ve probably been there. Nightmares, or scary dreams, can begin at any point within that time period but are most common between 3 and 6. This is because normal fears begin to develop then and the imaginations of kids in this age group are extremely active.

Most of the time the nightmares come and go without causing much of a problem. They typically involve frightening or unpleasant themes that involve a loss of control or the threat of being hurt. And they are usually associated with a particular stage of development. Toddlers, for example, might dream about being separated from mom or dad while a preschooler might dream about a scary monster.

They are one of the ways that children cope with changes that are going on in their lives. A move to a new neighborhood, the loss or illness of an important person, starting school or having to deal with the stress of their parent’s divorce or separation can all trigger nightmares. Seeing or hearing a scary story, movie, or television show can be quite upsetting to a child and can end up creating one, too. Children are very sensitive to the frightening images and upsetting story lines on many the shows on today.

Sometimes they are caused by fevers or a reaction to a medication. Being overtired, having an irregular sleep schedule or a high degree of stress in the home can also cause nightmares. And they can run in families — about 7% of kids who suffer from nightmares have a sibling or parent with a history as well.

As children get older, gain some mastery over their fears and begin to feel that they have more control in their lives, nightmares happen much less frequently.

But some children, perhaps up to 50% of them, have nightmares that disrupt their sleep and the sleep of their parents in a significant way and cause problems that impact their lives. For them the nightmares occur more often or on a regular basis. These kids are sometimes too tired to function the next day and may suffer from an inability to concentrate or do their schoolwork. They may even be afraid to go to sleep. These children may need professional help in order to overcome their sleep problem.

But the average, everyday, garden-variety type of nightmare is something that you can definitely handle yourself. In fact, there is a lot you can do to help your child get through the immediate ordeal and work towards mastering the fear. And even better, there are definite steps you can take to keep them from happening in the first place.

In general:

  • Make sure that you give your child a chance to decompress and quiet down before he goes to bed. Establish a sleep routine that you always follow and that he can count on. When things proceed according to a set plan each night his body will be cued to begin to relax automatically as the routine begins. So figure out what works for you and your family and stick to it. It could be as simple as: bath; P.J.’s; bottle or nursing; saying goodnight to other family members; story or book; pulling down shades; getting tucked in with the same favorite blanket or stuffed animal; kiss and a hug; lights out.
  • Set a calm and pleasant tone for bedtime. Talk about fun or happy things before saying goodnight.
  • Talk about “Dreamland” together in advance.
  • Keep up with what’s going on in her life and take time to discuss issues each day as they occur. If something went wrong at school or with a playmate help her problem-solve ways she could have handled things differently or make it better tomorrow. If it’s beyond her ability to deal with on her own, let her know that you will take care of it or help her to solve it.
  • When big changes are coming up or going on talk about them in a reassuring way. Let him know that you will make sure that he will be fine and that you will help him to get through the challenge.
  • Reduce the stress level in your household: don’t habitually fight or argue with your spouse in front of her; don’t discuss frightening or stressful things like health issues, financial problems or marital difficulties with her or in her presence.
  • Create structure in his day — have a regular schedule for meals, play, school and bedtime.
  • Make sure your children don’t watch television shows or movies with violent or frightening themes.

When a nightmare comes:

  • Comfort and reassure him that he is okay and that it was just a dream. Let him tell you about it. Say you’re sorry that he got scared and explain that the dream cannot hurt him.
  • Don’t tell him he is being silly or a baby. Validate the emotion without exaggerating or dramatizing it.
  • Help him shift gears before going back to sleep by reminding him about something fun or good that is coming up.
  • Don’t spend the next 20 minute opening all the doors and looking under the bed to prove that there isn’t a monster.
  • Leave the bedroom door open and remind him that you are close and can hear him.
  • Don’t bring him into your bed. This is likely to set up an expectation that whenever he has a bad dream it’s off to your room. Let him have the opportunity to see that he can handle this on his own.

The next day:

  • If she is still bothered by the dream, let her talk about it with you in detail. Let her know that you think it is very interesting and shows what a great imagination she has!
  • Then, play a game in which the two of you come up with a different ending where she is victorious or finds a strong ally or pulls out her magic wand and zaps the monster into a tiny frog or whatever works to bring a smile and a sense of mastery and relief. Don’t focus on violent resolutions but encourage the use of creative solutions instead. Have her imagine or visualize the new and improved dream.
  • If she likes to do art projects, give her some paper and encourage her to draw a picture and explain it to you. Alternately she can recreate the dream with dolls or toys and talk about what happened that way.
  • When nighttime comes, if she is fearful about the dream coming back reassure her but also remind her about the great new ending she created. Plant the idea that she can change it up since it is HER dream and she is the boss.

If he has frequent nightmares or a recurring one:

  • Follow instructions above AND …
  • Keep a log of what happened the day of the dream: note any issues or problems that came up; note any problems at home, day care, school etc.; note the use of any medications; note any changes or stressful events going on.

When to get help:

  • If the nightmares get worse or persist.
  • If the content is always violent or really disturbing.
  • If nothing seems to change in the dream despite efforts to talk about it or work it out through play, art or rescripting.
  • If they interfere with his ability to function during the day.
  • If he is taking any medication or has a health issue that could be contributing.
  • If your gut tells you something else might be going on.
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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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