Updated: Jun 23, 2022
Here's a handy guide to dealing with nightmares so that everyone can get a good night's sleep.
It’s a Nightmare: one way to help get a good night’s sleep!
Most children will experience nightmares at some point in their lives. They are a very common occurrence and can be genuinely frightening and distressing for children. Nightmares can become a problem if they make children anxious about going to sleep, being in their bedroom or being on their own.
Not Night Terrors
Nightmares are distinct from night terrors, which can be distressing for their parents who witness them, and may look worse than nightmares to the observer, but are not going to worry or trouble your child at all. The definition of night terrors is that they take place in a deep phase of sleep where the child will almost certainly have no memory of them.
Guide to Therapeutic Approach
This guide explains one technique for helping children manage nightmares, particularly a nightmare that happens several times or that is causing them anxiety that it will come back.
When to use it
This can work with children who are too young to articulate what has happened in the nightmare, but it is usually best if the child is old enough to draw some of it themselves and/or to give a detailed enough account for you to draw it for them. The technique is to get them to draw a picture of the nightmare, and then draw an alternative that isn’t so scary, and keep that less scary one somewhere in their room where they can see it. This won’t guarantee the nightmare won’t happen again, but it gives your child confidence they can cope if it does and gives them something nice to think about instead of worrying about the scary nightmare.
How to use it
Make sure you do this activity at a time and in a place where your child feels relaxed and secure. Do not attempt this in the 10 minutes before bedtime when they are already likely to be tired or feeling worried about sleep.
Get some pens or pencils and drawing paper ready. Explain to your child “We are going to draw some pictures of your nightmare/ bad dream so that we can help you to feel better about it”
Ask your child to draw a picture of what happened in their nightmare. Go gently. They may find even this scary. Try getting them to draw the least scary bit first. Try gentle questions: Were you in the nightmare? Do you remember where you were? What could you see? Were there any colours you noticed? Tell them it doesn’t matter if they can’t draw it exactly right. If there are bits they can’t draw or don’t want to draw, ask if you can draw it for them.
Once you have a drawing that your child thinks is a good enough idea of the nightmare, tell them “Now we are going to think of a way to make it not so scary. Can you think of something that would stop this from being so scary?”
Give them time to think about it, and if they can’t think of anything, try some gentle suggestions. Be creative! If your child isn’t sure, try making 2 or 3 different suggestions and see which one works for them.
“We could change the ending and make something different happen.” E.g instead of the storm blowing the tree down, we could build a great big tent over the tree to protect it, we could make it so the car doesn’t crash but it swerves and ends up in a massive sandpit and you get out and play in the sand
“We could think of something that would make the monster seem silly not scary!” e.g make it fall into a big hole, pelt it with bananas and custard, put a silly hat on it, make it unzip at the front and have a friendly person step out to show it was just someone dressed up for a fancy dress party……
“You could have a super power to defeat the baddie” e.g the robber wants to steal all the food in our house, so you could have laser eyes to see him coming through the wall and call the police; you could have turbo speed flying power so you can fly up into the sky and escape.
“You could have someone come and help – mum, dad, a super hero, grandma etc etc” Work out what the real or imagined person would do to help them feel safe and secure if they arrived in the nightmare e.g Mum could come and fight them off with her ninja moves; Grandma could lock them up in a big cage and hide the key until they say sorry.
We don’t want to stifle children’s creativity, but if possible, try to steer them towards doing something that is funny. This technique works best when the alternative picture they draw is something they would be happy to see on their bedroom wall, so chopping the baddie up into bits or blasting the monster with lasers is to be avoided! If you do find your child wants something like this, try and get to the next step where something funny or silly happens e.g if you chop the monster up, what would happen to all the pieces? Would they all turn into friendly fur balls that run around making beep noises? If you blasted it with a laser, would it shrink until you could pick it up and put it in the bin?
Reassure children that nightmares are scary, it is OK to feel scared, but they can’t really hurt you. Put the picture somewhere they can see it in their room and tell them “Now if that nasty dream comes back, you can look at your picture and know how to fix it”
This handy guide is from A Confident Start – clinical psychology and parenting advice to try at home - because your child’s story should be a good one.
With all best wishes,
Psychology that works for your family