Scary Nights

What to do when your child wakes with a bad dream.

Parents are often at a loss when they are awakened in the night by a frightened child running from a bad dream. Unfortunately, the usual advice of telling him that the dream isn’t real, before showing the child that there is nothing hiding under the bed or in the closet, doesn’t help. Rather, it leads the child to reawaken parents on a regular basis.

Bad dreams are real to children, who are convinced that the terrible creatures lurking in their rooms were there and may well return as soon as parents leave the bedroom.

Bad dreams are an attempt to deal with lingering emotional upsets. The best way to help a child who had a bad dream is to explain that dreams are stories we tell ourselves for a reason. We just have to understand the reason. Once children understand they are the authors of their bad dreams, they can engage in connecting dreams with losses that continue to bother them. In the process, children go from feeling helpless and victimized by a bad dream to feeling confident and in control. Eventually, kids learn to make sense of dreams on their own and can oftentimes fall back to sleep without having to wake their parents.

Typically, any experience that makes children sad, angry or worried may cause bad dreams. Examples include common unpleasantness like sibling rivalry, the flu, a spat with a friend, a new school year and disagreements with parents over bedtime. Nightmares may also be caused by more traumatic occurrences, such as parental divorce, a grave illness in the family and the death of a pet.

When parents ask children who have had a bad dream what might be bothering them, children ages 3 and older can usually identify a worry or loss that parents can connect with the dream. To illustrate, one 3 year old was devastated when he dreamt that his beloved dog was licking him in a painful manner. He couldn’t understand why his pet would want to hurt him. The boy ran to his parents, who asked if he could think of something upsetting that had happened that day. Their son remembered that he had fallen at school and badly skinned his leg. Once the child saw the connection between the skinned knee and the dog’s rough tongue, he laughed and said, “I knew Patsy would never hurt me!” The boy went back to bed happy and comfortable.

Children may have fewer bad dreams altogether if parents regularly ask kids at bedtime if they have any leftover upset feelings from that day. The experience of having a caring and sympathetic person to tell their troubles to may be all that is needed to prevent troubles from reappearing in disguised form in a bad dream.

Tips for Responding to Children’s Bad Dreams

  • Don’t try to persuade kids that dreams aren’t real.
  • Empower children by explaining that their dreams are stories they tell themselves for a reason.
  • Help kids understand reasons by connecting dreams to losses or worries from the previous day.
  • Ask kids at bedtime if they are bothered by something that happened that day.
  • Always offer a big hug and a snuggle when children come to you with a bad dream.