You know the drill. Its 3am and you finally put aside worries about the bills and your ‘to-do’ list for tomorrow to settle in for a few hours of sleep. Then, suddenly you hear the screams coming from your child’s room calling you. When you get there, tearful eyes look up at you. She had a bad dream. Again. And she wants to come and sleep with you now. To think, you thought when your infant slept through the night all the trials of sleeping were over! For many parents and children, bad dreams are a nightly occurrence that can easily disrupt the family and many other things. You can try and reason with your child, explain the dynamics of sleeping and dreaming but the bottom line is that to your child, the dreams seem or feel real!
Children have bad dreams for many reasons. Some are natural and are no different from the reasons that adults have bad dreams. Perhaps your child is worried or perhaps they watched a scary movie before bedtime that stayed on their mind. However, for some parents bad dreams are much more and can become night terrors. Night terrors are frightening for parents and even more so for children. Your child may seem like they are awake, screaming about monsters with their eyes open, but they are really sleep walking. Identifying the root cause is often difficult and for most kids they subside after a few weeks or months.
There is no ‘best way’ to handle bad dreams. As a parent, you have to take your clues from your child. Are they just frightened to be in their room alone and want an excuse to bed hop with you? Are they extremely stressed about something going on in their life? Remember, that to a young child ‘stress’ could be caused by an argument they overheard or even the thought of starting a new experience like school or dance class. Often, the initial response is to scoot over in your own bed and let them climb aboard. However, inadvertently this can lead to a habit of co-sleeping, where your child learns that bad dreams come with a positive response. At first, you should more than likely, talk to your child. Experts agree that you should stay in their room with them and try to talk to them about the dream. If they remember it, allow them to give you all the gory details so that you have some ammunition to rebuke. Even entertain their wildest fantasies and check under the bed for monsters with a flashlight. Try your best to be compassionate and help them to make sense of their bad dreams.
If the dreams become more frequent, you may want to do some investigation about what your child is worried about. Dreams are manifestations of our reality. They don’t always make sense, but they usually have a connection. Sometimes by solving an issue during their daytime you can bring peace to their nighttime. IN addition to that, come up with a ritual that makes your child feel safe. Avoid closing the door, keep a night light on in their room. Even say a little protection prose. One really powerful one is ‘Four corners round my bed, four angels at my head. One to watch, one to pray, and two to keep bad things away!’ You can also give your child some empowerment tools like a magic flashlight or a good luck charm to take to bed that will safeguard them from their dreams. A dream catcher also can work wonders on their imagination. The point is that to your child the dreams are seriously scary. You should not just discard their feelings as nonsense and show that you truly are compassionate and trying to help.
If you feel that your child is using bad dreams just in order to hop in bed with you, then you should take some sort of action. Explain to them that they cannot sleep with you (if that is your choice) and stay in their room with them until they are calmed down. Use your empowerment tools and help your child learn to self soothe and rationalize their thoughts. Bad dreams can make it really difficult for your child to go back to sleep. If they are highly stressed then allow them to get up for a minute, have a drink and calm down before going back to bed. Realize that these dreams are traumatizing to them.
If your child has a lot of bad dreams, meaning more than three per week you may want to talk to your pediatrician. Sometimes, medication or counseling may be in order. Additionally, look for triggers in your child’s life. A seemingly harmless television show can be the root cause of bad dreams. Kids don’t always understand things in their implicit sense or as intended. Make sure you spend time each day talking to your child about their worries and listening to them when they are playing and imagining. Many children work out their real life troubles through imaginative play. Then, you can talk to them very directly, about how they feel. If you have family problems, you also might not be hiding them from your child as well as you think. Instead, try talking to them about what is going on and making sure that they feel solid and safe.
Bad dreams, for anyone are awful. As adults, it is easy to wake up and reconnect to the realization that it was just a dream. For a child, not so much. To them, dreams feel real and when frightening, can threaten their health and wellbeing. Especially if they are frequent. Realize of course, that they are temporary. Your child will grow up and out of the phase of having bad dreams that have them darting to your bed.