Dealing with nightmares

Have you ever found yourself face-to-face at 3:00 in the morning, with a child who has just had a nightmare?

Some kids are more prone to nightmares.  I must admit, I was one of them (I remember watching a movie about Dracula and The Werewolf at a friend’s house and having nightmares for weeks afterwards – I can still picture parts of the movie, some 35 years later).  I learned pretty quickly that I should keep my distance from anything that was creepy or disturbing or I would pay for my transgression in lost sleep (and so would my poor Mom).

My daughter didn’t “fall far from the tree”, as they say (this time though, I was the Mommy being awakened in the middle of the night).  She is pretty sensitive to sad and/or scary stories and images and, although she rarely chooses to be subjected to them if given an option, the choice is not always hers to make (ironically, the worst offenders are movies or videos she sees at school).

Initially when she had a nightmare, I was very tempted to just have her crawl into bed with us, or to grab my pillow and plop down on the floor beside her bed, but I stopped myself from giving in to this urge (I really didn’t want to encourage a strategy that would more than likely result in a lousy sleep for both her and us).  Plus, although these ‘solutions’ would definitely be easier in the short term, what about the next time she was awakened by a nightmare, and the time after that?  Wouldn’t both she and I be better off in the long term if, instead of making her dependent on me, I taught her how to calm herself down and put herself back to sleep?

This wasn’t going to happen overnight, but I had to start sometime.  Truthfully, I wasn’t really sure what would work (I’m sure it varies by the individual), so my plan was to give her a number of strategies and then, over time, she could identify the ones that worked best for her.

When she came into my room to tell me that she had had a nightmare, I would gently take her back to her bedroom and have her get into bed, so that she was in the right state of mind to go back to sleep.  I would then sit at the edge of her bed, gently rub her back and ‘try out’ any techniques that I could think of.  Here are some tips and techniques for dealing with nightmares that I tried out, with varying degrees of success (I mention even those that didn’t work for my daughter, as what works for your child may be different that what works for mine)…

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  • turned over her pillow so that her nightmare ‘disappeared’ (some kids also like the feel of the cool pillowcase)
  • asked her if there was a favourite stuffie that she would like to cuddle with in bed and keep her company
  • had her ‘replay’ the nightmare but this time have something silly happen (e.g. the ‘bad guys’ are wearing polka-dotted underwear and tutus or they trip and fall into the mud)
  • hung a dreamcatcher close to her bed to ‘catch’ any bad dreams
  • had her think about things that she loves to do (e.g. playing with the neighbour’s dog or making a LEGO creation) – this distracts her mind and gets it thinking about more pleasant things
  • had her think about things that make her laugh (e.g. a funny video that she saw)
  • put the light on in the hall so that it didn’t seem quite so dark and scary


Once I determined the strategies that worked best for my daughter (her favourites were the dreamcatcher, the stuffie and thinking about things that she loved to do), I got to the point where I only needed to walk her back into her room, get her settled, and put the strategies into her head (e.g. “would it help to sleep with Snuggles tonight” or “think about the last time you played with Cocoa and the fun you had”).  I would then assure her that she was OK and that I was nearby, and go back to bed.  As she practiced the techniques herself, she required less and less ‘coaching’ from me and went back to sleep more readily.

Imagine how thrilled I was the other day, when my daughter told me that she had been awakened by a nightmare and that she had simply grabbed her favourite doll, hugged her close and went back to sleep (and I was none the wiser!).

One small victory for her and I!