My 9 year old has started having nightmares. What can I do?
Posted by: Sue Atkins
Here’s a question that came through my Parenting Club. If you’d like your question answered by me on my Parenting Show click > here
My 9 year old has started having nightmares. What can I do? Russ Robertson from Croydon
Nightmares: Practical Steps to Stop Scary Dreams
Children of all ages get scared by nightmares.
Nightmares are most common in children aged 6 to 10. While pre-schoolers have an active imagination, and worry about monsters under their bed, older children incorporate real-life fears, such as being kidnapped, burgled or bullied into their dreams.
One study by Dutch researchers found that 96% of 7- to 9-year-olds reported having nightmares, as compared with 68% of 4- to 6-year-olds and 76% of 10- to 12-year-olds.
Nearly 70% of the kids said that their dreams were about something they’d seen on TV.
Recurring nightmares, where the same theme appears over and over again are a sign that something might be wrong. Nightmares are a child’s way of trying to work out something emotional that they can’t work through consciously; recurring nightmares are your child’s way of telling you that they are stuck trying to resolve something difficult.
Nightmares happen during REM sleep, and many children don't wake up after them. However, some dreams can wake your child up because they trigger their body's fight-or-flight response that elevates their heart rate. Any source of stress, even being overtired, can increase the risk of your child having a nightmare. So, bad dreams can be a self-fulfilling prophesy: stressing out about whether you're going to have a nightmare makes you even more likely to have one!
When your child wakes up feeling afraid, their house can seem scary and that can make it even harder for them to fall back to sleep alone. A child may have a hard time distinguishing between dreams and reality, and resist trying to fall asleep because they think they’ll go back into the bad dream.
The function of dreams seems to be to make sense of our experiences during the day. If your child has a bad dream now and then, they’re just working through something, and that’s part of normal developmental anxiety. But if they are having nightmares more regularly think about the possible sources of stress at home, or at school, that you could help them address.
Ask yourself or them: ‘What’s changed?’
Have they moved school, are they getting ready to go to Secondary School, has someone died, have you just had a new baby, are they moving between homes due to your divorce, are they worrying about exam stress, a karate or trumpet test, have they got a new teacher, are they being bullied, have they fallen out with a long-time friend?
Things that seem OK during the day often surface at night. So, find time during the day to talk in a relaxed, comfortable place where you have plenty of time as it will help your child feel heard and supported. Be practical and accepting and listen to their worries and then think about practical ways to redress their anxiety or fear.
If your child has a bad dream, it’s natural to tell her, “It’s not real—go back to bed but to your child, it seems very real. So, soothe your child and validate how they feel by acknowledging their emotion. You might say, “I can imagine that is really scary, but there’s no bad clown in your room.”
Set the stage for sleep.
Children who go to bed too late are more likely to have nightmares. School-age kids need 10 to 11 hours of sleep. Electronics, ipads, tablets and smart phones inhibit production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin so they should be turned off at least an hour before bedtime, when it’s best to do a calm activity such as playing a board game, taking a bath, or reading to or with your child.
A calm body and mind have an easier time falling and staying asleep. My friend Marneta Viegas has written some wonderful MP3 downloads for children of all ages. Go and explore the award winning Relax Kids
Having a new stuffed animal/toy may help your child feel safer in bed. A study of Israeli children during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War by researchers at Tel Aviv University found that children who were given a “Huggy Puppy” had fewer nightmares and other stress-related symptoms. The children were either told that they should protect the puppy or that the puppy would protect them. So, find something that your child finds reassuring a toy, or something that reminds them of you and get them to keep it near for a while.
Don’t avoid what’s scary.
When I was young I became frightened of my favourite doll Blondie, who was almost as big as me. My Mum asked me to turn her face around, and I did. But that was a mistake; as turns out, according to eminent psychologists, my dear old Mum was just confirming to me that the doll Blondie was indeed frightening.
Instead of shielding your child, help them gradually learn to tolerate whatever they are afraid of. The point is, the more they think about or see the thing that scares them, the less scary it will become. It’s a bit like learning to enjoy coffee without sugar, at first, the flavour is very strong, but if you keep drinking it the flavour disappears and you get used to it.
Be mindful of doing this with sensitivity. You don’t want to make matters worse.
Retrain your child’s brain.
Bad dreams can simply become a habit. Your child has a few bad nights so expects more bad nights. So, retrain your child’s expectations and don’t make bedtime a self-fulfilling prophecy. After a nightmare or at bedtime, get your child thinking about something happy and fun. Have an attitude of gratitude and think of 5 things they are grateful for and have enjoyed that day. It will shift their mindset. Get them to imagine that they have a remote control in their hand and that they can change the channel away from their scary thoughts. It will empower them to feel that they have more control over their dreams. Some parents buy a dreamcatcher to hang over their child’s bed.
One child I worked with was afraid of a fire happening in her home, so I got Mum and Dad to go through exactly what would happen in their house and to practice their family’s fire escape plan and she helped change the batteries in the smoke alarms together with her parents. The nightmares stopped.
Create a new ending.
The next step is to encourage your child to come up with a new ending to their bad dream that’s silly, magical, or empowering. Just thinking about the dream with a different ending will make them less likely to have the nightmare. Perhaps the baddie, clown or villain falls into a bathtub full of spaghetti bolognaise or your child pushes the monster off a cliff, or they explode, evaporate or get washed down the toilet!
Sometimes there is no easy solution to bad dreams, and a child will just grow out of them. That’s what happened with one of my kids – nightmares often come out of nowhere, but they can go away out of nowhere too.
Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., author of ‘What to Do When You Dread Your Bed’
Here’s my article on > Night Terrors which are different to bad dreams.