Has this happened to you? It's about 3 a.m. and you're stirred from your sleep. You think you've heard a noise. A weepy child comes into your bedroom. You ask what's wrong and through their sobs you can only hear key words. "Bear," "chase," and, "Can I sleep with you?" The bad news? You will not get any more sleep for the rest of the night as your child climbs into your bed and inevitably hogs all the space. The good news? This is super common and almost certainly nothing to be worried about, but there are moments when should you pay attention to kids' nightmares and not the fact that you're going to lose (another) night's sleep.
While nightmares are a common at any age, they usually occur in children between the ages of 3 and 6. Most of the time, nightmares are just a sign that their adorable, preschooler brains are developing normally. Nightmares usually show themselves and become somewhat of a common nighttime occurrence just around the age when children become more cognizant of the undeniable fact that there are, unfortunately, dangers out in the world. I mean, that's common knowledge to an adult, but for a kid this is a terrifying revelation and a new source of stress, whether they recognize it as such or not (they probably won't).
Most of the time, and even though they're scary, nightmares are just the brain working out some new (perhaps upsetting) information and all that your kid needs to overcome them is a quick kiss and a hug and reassurance that they're going to be OK. Sometimes, however, there's more going on. Here are times when you might need to dig a little deeper...
When There's A Recurring Nightmare Or Theme
When a particular theme or scenario plays out over and over again in a child's mind (like that year-and-a-half long span where my son would have nightmares about "the bears coming into our house" every single night), there's obviously something more deep-seated than a passing worry, and they will need more help sorting out that fear. The morning or day after such a nightmare provides you with the opportunity to help them work through those fears with more in-depth, pointed discussions. A great way to start that discussion, and facilitate it until you can figure out what may or may not be going on, is to ask questions. When did they first become afraid? Why are they afraid? Is this a reasonable fear? What can they do to feel better?
When Their Nightmares Keep Them From Getting Sufficient Sleep
Children at the "prime nightmare age" need between 9 to 13 hours of sleep a night. When nightmares are keeping them from hitting those numbers, that means they're not getting the rest they need to function, grow, and develop optimally. Of course, you might also be somewhat motivated to pay attention because there's a good chance their nightmares are keeping you from getting the sleep you need, too, what with your preschooler screaming and running in your bed in the middle of the night. That's always fun.
When Their Nightmares Regularly Occur In Concert With Another Issue Or Event
Sometimes this is hard to pick up on, because life is busy and crazy, but if your child is having recurring nightmares, try to see if the days preceding or following have anything in common. Are they having nightmares the day before they go to a weekly babysitting appointment? Or soccer practice? Or after they watch a particular show. Nightmares can be a manifestation of not only fear, but stress, and may indicate that there's something stressful going on in a child's life that they can't verbalize or is too scary to talk about.
When Their Nightmare Follows A Traumatic Event
Children and adults will often process their stress after a trauma (such as a death in the family, car accident, or injury) subconsciously through their dreams. This gives you another outlet through which to help your child talk about what happened and how they feel. Having a natural segue to discuss a traumatic event will help your kid get a better understanding of their emotions, the event, and themselves on their own terms.
When It's Not Just The Nightmares That Are A Problem
When nightmares come along around the same time as other behavioral changes, such as not listening, violent outbursts, tantrums, well, that's most likely just your kid being a normal, healthy, obnoxious, trying preschooler. Womp, womp. However, it could also mean that they are acting out because of some unspoken stress or anxiety and it can't hurt to probe a little bit.
When You And An Angry Mob Of Other Parents In Your Town Sought Vigilante Justice On A Local Child Murderer And He Swore Revenge On Your Children
Yes, this is the plot of Nightmare on Elm Street, but the point is you never know. Like, is Freddy Kreuger coming for your children? Probably not, but can you ever be too careful? These are our kids we're talking about. Here are your options: give them lots and lots of coffee and never let them sleep again*, or, they a particularly intrepid and clever, send them into dreamland so they can defeat Freddy in hand-to-hand combat.
*please do not give your child copious amounts of coffee and remember that they need 9-13 hours of sleep a night.
So What Should You Do?
I'll level with you: there's a pretty good chance that you're never going to prevent nightmares completely, which sucks. But that's okay, because there are things you can do to help.
- Put a nightlight in your child's room. Sometimes its an tired yet overactive imagination wondering about what's in the dark that prompts nightmares
- Avoid scary TV shows, movies, or books. It sounds basic but it might be trickier than it sounds because kids get freaked out by some total random stuff and they don't always tell you what it is. Try to piece together your child's triggers and limits and err on the side of caution.
- Establish a comforting, relaxing, regular bedtime routine. Minimizing excitement and maximizing soothing familiarity are good things (in this regard anyway, not so much on, say, rollercoasters)--when your child knows what to expect and knows that you're there with them and that nighttime is "handled" they're less likely to get nervous about sleeping and the dark.
- Use magic. My mom had a bottle of "pixie dust" she kept on a shelf in our room when my brother and I started entering an age where nightmares were common. She'd toss a little in the air and assured us that the fairy magic was going to keep nightmares away and give us happy dreams. And it worked because my mother is a powerful wizard.
- Designate a captain of the guard. My son's bear, Roar Bear, protects him at night. We established this a long time ago. He is secure knowing that if anything bad were to happen (which it wouldn't since it's protected by fairies, but whatever), Roar Bear would either come to life to help him or he'd send a magic message to mommy and daddy so we'd be in right away.
- Learn about nocturnal creatures. The dark can be scary! I'm 33 and the dark still kinda freaks me out (don't judge me: I watch a lot of horror movies and shit goes down in the dark). If the whimsy of enchanted bears and pixie dust isn't your thing (or even if it is) head over to your local library and take out books on creatures that make the dark their home. Seeing interesting animals at ease and thriving in the dark will help your child see that there's nothing to be scared of and that, in fact, there's a lot to be interested in
And when you can't prevent nightmares? Comfort and reassure your child. Validate that they are scared and that it's okay to be scared of scary dreams, but reassure them that you are there for them, that they are safe, and that nightmares aren't real, if if they seem like they are. In the light of day, talk to them about what they were feeling and thinking in the nightmare as a way to work through there fear and help them figure out what coping skills might work for them to overcome their fears.
Unless, like I said, you have a Freddy Kreuger issue on your hands. In that case, start brewing coffee*.