Do you miss the time when you could sleep through the night without being awoken by your child because of bad dreams?
As a child, I had this haunting recurring bad dream of a little girl sitting at a vanity in a sea of blackness. Oh, and her face was painted as a sad clown.
That was not the only recurring dream I had as a child, but it was the most fascinating. I have no idea why that was so terrifying, but it was.
So now as a mom, when one of my children wakes me up because they are having bad dreams, I feel their pain by remembering mine.
Yet, I still want to go back to sleep. . .
So how do you get your child back to sleep after bad dreams? After doing some research and using my experience with my own children, I believe these are the three most successful ways to get your child back to sleep. But first, let’s look at some facts about bad dreams.
An article on Fatherly.com, written by Theresa Fisher, references the research done by Antonio Zadra. A dream researcher, Zadra analyzed 24 nightmare research studies from 1982 to 2009. He noted some universal features about bad dreams.
Half of all kids, from toddlers to teens, experience nightmares once in awhile.
About 40 percent have frequent nightmares — meaning, at least one per month.
Nightmare frequency peaks between age 7 and 10, and drops sharply during the tween years.
Anxious children have more nightmares than go-with-the-flow types. Certain behavioral issues may predict nightmare frequency (ex., misconduct at school), but there’s no scientific consensus.
Kids with PTSD are especially vulnerable to nightmares, and their dreams are materially different from those of non-traumatized children. Researchers can even predict which kids have experienced trauma based on what haunts their dreams.
Nightmares are more common among girls than boys, but this gender difference may not emerge until after age 10. It’s not clear if girls actually experience more nightmares, or if boys report fewer nightmares because they don’t want to speak up or don’t remember their dreams as often as girls.
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Alright, here is the good stuff. . .
1. Replace Bad Thoughts with Good Thoughts
This is my favorite strategy and one that has had a lot of success with my children. After having a nightmare, the details and emotions of it keep running through our heads over and over. We may not remember the entirety of the dream, but we always remember some horrifying details of the nightmare. Then, those details keep running over and over in our minds. Even if we can see that the dream was ridiculous, the emotions we felt from the dream don’t just suddenly disappear. To help my kids, I first ask them if they want to tell me about their dream. If they do not, I don’t question them any further. My goal is to get their mind off of their dream as soon as possible so that we can all go back to bed.
I can’t make the emotional switch for them, but I can teach them strategies to cope with bad dreams. Tell them they can start thinking and focusing on a happy/funny memory. You suggest one and lead the conversation. If that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, I start talking about an upcoming event that they are excited about.
Still, if I am not sensing some calming down, I then proceed to make up a story about things they love and people they love. It may be a story equivalent to an adult imagining about winning the lottery and what they would do with all the money.
I keep talking and encouraging them to participate until their heart stops racing and I can sense they are calming down and the main thoughts running through their head are more positive than negative. Try not to reference the dream anymore. I might rock them, or just go sit on their bed with them for a while. Don’t fall asleep with them, let them in our bed, or have an angry outburst about wanting to go back to sleep.
2. Use Your Faith
The specifics of this technique will vary depending on your faith. We are Catholic so I will tell you how I use our Faith to help my children combat bad dreams.
We believe each of us has our own guardian angel. I tell my kids that their guardian angel will never let something in a bad dream harm them. We also believe in the intercession of Mary, mother of God, and the Saints. Intercession simply means we believe they are very powerful prayer partners. Only God himself answers prayers. One of our saints, St. Benedict, is known to have great experience with temptation and tribulation from Satan. Therefore, St. Benedict represents for us a mentor in warding off the wickedness of the Devil. At a time when my oldest son was having frequent bad dreams, I hung a St. Benedict medal above his bed as a kind of “Catholic dream catcher.”
We do not believe the medal itself has special powers, rather it is a reminder of the intercession of prayer from the saint(s).
I believe spiritual warfare is real and often times people underestimate it. I tell my kids to say, “In Jesus’ name, get thee behind me Satan.” I also will say the same thing under my breath for my child several times.
Some faiths believe in dream catchers and some people may rely on the science and psychology of understanding dreams and their purpose. Whatever you believe, there is always a way to use your belief system to feel protected from or logically understand dreams.
3. Imagery Rehearsal Method
This is a cognitive treatment method that is most useful when your child feels comfortable talking about their bad dreams. Children cope with things differently. If a child does not want to talk about their dream, then I would use the first strategy.
Imagery Rehearsal Method (IRT) is a fancy way of saying “rewrite your dreams.” It has 20 years of research and success behind it in lowering the frequency of bad dreams.
It is quite simple but requires imagination and a sense of humor. You change the scary aspect(s) of the dream into happy and/or silly things. Going back to the dream I had as a little girl, I might imagine that she is sitting at the vanity with the colorful tent walls of a circus as the background and painting her face sad because she is about to do an act where she jumps into a baby pool full of jello and can’t climb out because it is too slippery.
It is inconclusive whether you should stay with them until they fall back asleep. There is probably no ‘right” answer. Keeping in mind that you don’t want to start any bad habits when your child experiences a bad dream, go with your gut feeling as to whether you stay with them until they fall back asleep or not. You know your child best!
These three strategies speak to the instances of infrequent bad dreams. If your child is having more severe and/or very frequent nightmares, then you should probably consult a doctor. For instance, if you know of no obvious stresses your child is under then keep in mind that bad dreams can be a reaction to drugs or a physical condition that needs the advisement of a doctor.
Here are three reputable resources for more details about bad dreams/nightmares.
Here are a few useful things I have always used to help myself and my kids sleep well.
An air purifier: two benefits in one product! Sound is soothing and cuts out other “kid suspicious” sounds as well as helps with allergies. Oreck is by far my favorite brand. It may cost more up front, but being able to clean and reuse the filters makes it very cost-effective.
Do you think these strategies work? I would love to hear any tricks or methods you have found successful in getting your child back to sleep after a bad dream. Please tell me about it in the comments below!