What to do about nightmares

14 Jul

From Your Anxious Child: Emails to Parents by Edward H. Plimpton, PhD


What to Do About Nightmares

A most unwelcome nighttime visitor is the nightmare. We all get them at some point, and they are usually triggered by a frightening event, or major transition such as starting school or a parental divorce, but also something scary in a movie or television show. Significant trauma can lead to recurrent nightmares, s something our military veterans unfortunately often have to deal with. Nightmares involve very intense emotions, usually fear, and the content is remembered. Recalling our nightmares is in contrast to night terrors, which feature extreme panic but no recollection of the dream. Some common themes of nightmares, to mention a few, involve being chased or attacked, smothered, or falling. The intensity of the nightmare can be traumatizing to your child, and may make him afraid to go to sleep because he might have another one.

What can we do for your child who has had a nightmare? While most nightmares are caused by something scary, it is important to consider whether there might be physical cause (e.g., a fever), a recent illness or a drug reaction. Recurrent nightmares, however, are suggestive of emotional problems that are not being resolved and might merit professional attention. With these cautionary comments noted, there are some things to try

Start by calming your child and providing reassurance. The distinction between reality, fantasy and dreams is not always clear to young children and they may need some help on that front. The intensity of the fear needs to be acknowledged and never laughed at or dismissed. Once you have reassured your child, it is time to find about what happened in the nightmare and to get as much detail as possible. Our general goal with nightmares, as with all scary things, is to create a way where your child can become more active rather than being passively victimized. Nightmares put your child in a defensive position, as in having to run for her life in the dream, and we want help her to take a more active and assertive stance against the images in that dream. Basically, we want to help your child rewrite the nightmare and put herself in a more powerful role.

So perhaps we can begin by having your child draw the nightmare or the scariest image in it. A monster drawn on paper can’t move. But if that is too scary, your child might have to begin by drawing a jail for the monster or some special guards against it. The next move depends upon the nature of the beast, the nightmare images, so to speak, but there are a range of options. Let’s try to avoid the most violent options, such as killing the monster. Because we are in the world of dreams, we can’t count on such actions carrying any finality. The monster may come right back the next night with greater intensity just like the sequel to the horror movie playing at the local movie theater. Perhaps your child could render the monster harmless by drawing something silly onto his monster picture, such as diaper, or give it a lollipop. We may also transform the nightmare monster by helping your child ask it questions, such as “What are you doing in my dream?” or “Why are you chasing me?” Anne Wiseman, in Nightmare Help: a Guide for Parents and Teachers, provides a variety of questions you can ask your child to help him with his nightmare. A very basic question she suggests is asking your child what he would need to feel safe or less scared. In general, asking questions to help your child rewrite and transform the dream into something where he is more in control is the goal. Even though dreams take place in your head when you are asleep, there is emerging evidence that is possible during your waking hours to transform your dreams by rewriting them, and thus lessen this nighttime annoyance.

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