What to Do When Your Child Is Having Nightmares
Children don’t always have the language or understanding to articulate their emotional process. And even if they do, they don’t always want to talk about it, says Los Angeles–based marriage and family therapist Annie Armstrong Miyao.
But often without prompting, Miyao finds, nightmares come up in her sessions with clients. Talking about those dreams is one nonconfrontational way for kids to express themselves—and for her to gain some understanding of their experience and psychology.
She has also found (in her professional experience and as a mom of three) that bad dreams can be an opportunity for parents to help kids build resilience and learn to self-soothe in new ways.
Understanding Children and Their Nightmares
Nightmares are a normal part of childhood (and adulthood, for that matter), and considering the state of the world right now, we all, including our children, might find ourselves on edge to varying degrees. Being cooped up at home as a family can also have the strange impact of making us feel simultaneously over- and understimulated. All of these elements are stirring up extra-vivid dreams.
As a psychotherapist, I often see young patients who struggle with haunting bad dreams. I work to help kids manage them, often looping in their parents. Nightmares can be overwhelming and disruptive to both parent and child, beyond the negative impact they can have on getting a good night’s sleep (however low that bar may have dropped for the parent since having children).
Nightmares can sometimes draw attention to something in the child that needs tending to. At home with my children and at work with my patients, I notice the nightmares speak to the individual child’s circumstances and psychology but tend to revolve around universal themes or relate to a developmental milestone. I have come to learn that paying attention to nightmares—not dwelling in them but touching on them—and helping a child process them can be a chance for them to grow, practice self-soothing, and develop resiliency.
“Try not to think of understanding a dream as trying to solve a riddle. Think of it more like looking at a painting with them and letting them talk about what they see, think, and feel.”
Children’s dreams are often realistic and frightening, sometimes filled with details from the culture that we are unaware they are aware of. Carl Jung believed that some of our dreams are connected to the collective unconscious, an individual reflection on the shared history and experience of being human. So if we hold that idea, it shouldn’t be surprising that my six-year-old had a nightmare of a gunman shooting up cars on an ordinary trip to the zoo, despite her not listening to or reading the news.
A common theory is that dreams are a way for us to process our experience, build memory, strategize for worst-case scenarios, work through stress and fear, and connect to the parts of ourselves that are repressed. It is valid then for us to sit with children for a moment when they talk about a dream. Listening to, comforting through, and strategizing around nightmares can minimize their negative impact, decrease anticipatory fear of the next one, and help children find strength and peace in both their dreams and daily lives.
Try not to think of understanding a dream as trying to solve a riddle. Think of it more like looking at a painting with them and letting them talk about what they see, think, and feel.
These strategies might not put an end to nightmares, but they can help. Children’s stressors, like our own, change in time. But so does our resiliency to grow with each new challenge.
Minimize stimulation before bed. No screen time, no scary stories, no rough and tumble or overly active imagination play before bed. Try to do simple, quiet things, like a board game or extra reading or some drawing.
Create a bedtime ritual. There’s the simple pajama-book-toothbrushing routine, but consider adding a step related to sleeping peacefully. Come up with something together with your child. My daughter and I talk to her inner dream self and ask it for sweet dreams and gentle images so that she can rest peacefully without getting scared or overwhelmed. Some kids have a totem rock or stone that has “magical powers” to keep them safe. Try quietly playing a guided meditation to help your child drift to sleep; those can be very helpful in quieting a busy brain or body. For children who can write, have them write down the good things that happened that day. This is a great antidote to worry and sadness. It can also help set the stage for sweet dreams.
Together with your child, come up with calming and reassuring images they can use to self-soothe later. Before bedtime, you and your child can come up with a few peaceful images or stories. These few stories will be the ones you consistently offer up to your child to focus on when they wake up restless from a bad dream. After you choose the story, talk them through the image or memory of the happy, peaceful place. What did they see, hear, and touch? As this place solidifies for them, you can create shortcuts for them to access that place in their mind’s eye on their own. For example, ask them to draw a picture of it and put it by their bed, or sing a song they can associate with the place and encourage them to sing it to themselves when they wake up from a bad dream. The more they connect to that place, the deeper those neurological and somatic pathways will become, providing easier access to a feeling of safety.
In the middle of the night, empathize, comfort, and reassure, then redirect. When your child wakes from a bad dream, the script could sound something like this: “You are so scared. That sounds like a scary dream. You are safe. It was a dream. But you are safe in your bed. Everyone is safe and sleeping. It is time to rest. Let’s now think about something happy and peaceful. Like the time you…[insert the story or image you and your child came up with].
If the dream comes up again the next day, empathize, reflect, and reinforce their sense of safety and agency. A lot of times, this doesn’t go very far with small children, but even a moment of expression may feel like a relief to them. Look at the big feelings attached to the dream and empathize. Remind them that dreams are not real but imaginary, like a story. If a lot of fear is still expressed, encourage them to create different endings to the dream. If they could have a superpower, what would they do to fight off the bad guy?
Another idea is to draw an image of the dream and tear it up. Or draw a picture in which they conquer the nightmare villain. By exposing themselves visually and verbally to the scary image they can make it less potent.
Reinforce their resilience. Reflect to them the times that they slept through the night or put themselves to sleep on their own even when they were afraid that they would have a bad dream. You are creating some boundaries and encouraging self-sufficiency and resilience.
See if there is anything going on that might require your help. Sometimes the bad dream can speak to a specific worry in a child’s life that you can take some steps to help them with. If the dreams are about a bully, is there a conversation to be had with teachers or a need to offer tools for them to self-advocate? If the nightmares are about death, are there conversations to be had around dying? And so on.
Consult professionals. If you sense that the dreams are about a traumatic event in your child’s life, it’s a good time to get some support. Talk to the school counselor or reach out to a therapist to get some extra ideas about how to help your child process the trauma.
Annie Armstrong Miyao is a Los Angeles–based psychotherapist, writer, and mother of three.