Most times nightmares occur for no apparent reason. Other times they happen when a child is experiencing stress or change.
Events or situations that might feel unsettling — such as moving, attending a new school, the birth of a sibling, or family tensions — might also be reflected in unsettling dreams.
Here’s how to help your child cope after a nightmare.
Reassure your child that you’re there
Your calm presence helps your child feel safe and protected after waking up feeling afraid. Knowing you’ll be there helps strengthen your child’s sense of security.
Label what’s happened
Let your child know that it was a nightmare and now it’s over. You might say something like, “You had a bad dream, but now you’re awake and everything is OK.” Reassure your child that the scary stuff in the nightmare didn’t happen in the real world.
Show that you understand that your child feels afraid and it’s OK. Remind your child that everyone dreams and sometimes the dreams are scary, upsetting, and can seem very real, so it’s natural to feel scared by them.
Do your magic
With preschoolers and young school-age kids who have vivid imaginations, the magical powers of your love and protection can work wonders. You might be able to make the pretend monsters disappear with a dose of pretend monster spray. Go ahead and check the closet and under the bed, reassuring your child that all’s clear.
A nightlight or a hall light can help kids feel safe in a darkened room as they get ready to go back to sleep. A bedside flashlight can be a good nightmare-chaser.
Help your child go back to sleep
Offering something comforting might help change the mood. Try any of these to aid the transition back to sleep: a favorite stuffed animal to hold, a blanket, pillow, nightlight, dreamcatcher, or soft music. Or discuss some pleasant dreams your child would like to have. And maybe seal it by giving your child a kiss to hold — in the palm of his or her hand — as you tiptoe out of the room.
Be a good listener
No need to talk more than briefly about the nightmare in the wee hours — just help your child feel calm, safe, and protected, and ready to go back to sleep. But in the morning, your child may want to tell you all about last night’s scary dream. By talking about it — maybe even drawing the dream or writing about it — in the daylight, many scary images lose their power. Your child might enjoy thinking up a new (more satisfying) ending to the scary dream.
For most kids, nightmares happen only now and then, are not cause for concern, and simply require a parent’s comfort and reassurance.
Talk to your doctor if nightmares often prevent your child from getting enough sleep or if they occur along with other emotional or behavioral troubles.