Things going bump in the night? Hearing your little one scream in the middle of the night is enough to give any parent a minor heart attack – especially when you find your child crying hysterically in her sleep. We take a look at why children have nightmares and ways you can soothe your child back to sleep.
What causes nightmares?
Nightmares are vividly realistic, disturbing dreams that can be either idiopathic (spontaneous or of obscure cause) or post-traumatic (occurring after a crisis).
Idiopathic nightmares are extensions of the sleep-wake cycle. One theory is that the cortex (outer covering of the cerebrum, or largest part of the brain) rehearses disconnected images that it received during wakefulness and strings these together into a story format. These images can come from something your child has experienced or heard, such as seeing someone get hurt or being frightened by a monster on TV.
Other causes could be stressors that your child encounters while awake, like being bullied or feeling abandoned due to the parents’ divorce.
Post-traumatic nightmares could reflect crises in your child’s life. Some experts believe that these may be a coping mechanism, but most psychologists assert that they perpetuate the anxiety of the trauma. Most post-traumatic stress takes up to six months to resolve, and nightmares during this period may be common, slowly diminishing as your child gains distance from the event.
Ways to deal with nightmares
Natasha Fredericks, a clinical psychologist, specialising in child therapy, says that your response at the time of the nightmare can either empower your child or perpetuate the cycle of nightmares if you pass on your own anxieties.
She recommends several techniques you can use to soothe your little one when she has a nightmare:
Help your child feel safe
Create an environment in which your child knows that you’ll deal with the situation together. Hold her to reassure her, and if she can verbalise the dream content, ask her what disturbed her. If you hear her crying in her sleep, you can wake her up.
“Let your child know that nightmares are common and that you would also have been frightened by a similar nightmare,” Natasha recommends.
Rehearse a positive image
Teach your child to create an image of a ‘happy place’ or context in which she’s content and at peace. It could be an image of a beach or her favourite activity.
Help plot out the ending
This technique involves helping your child to come up with alternative endings to the nightmare. Some parents suggest that the child imagine non-violent ways to conquer the dream oppressors by learning to fly, caging the monster, or outsmarting him.
You can rehearse these positive outcomes with your child before bedtime. “These techniques will let your child know that she has control over the outcome.”
Correct the triggers
This involves identifying the cause of the nightmare and taking measures to correct the triggers. You can change bedtime routines, be more vigilant about images in the media, or make changes within your family unit if this has triggered the nightmares.
If you’re not sure what’s triggering the nightmares, Natasha recommends seeing a therapist for counselling. “Recurring dreams can alert parents and therapists that there could be an ongoing trauma, such as abuse or bullying. The trauma may have occurred a few years before, but something may trigger those old emotions and lead to a nightmare,” she says.