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 in her sleep. Nightmares are scary – and can even leave adults rattled.
Why is my child having nightmares?
Nightmares 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 as a result of 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.
4 tips 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:
Create an environment in which your child knows that you’ll deal with the situation together. Hold her to provide reassurance, and if she is able to 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.
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, such as by learning to fly, or caging the monster or outsmarting him.
You can rehearse these positive outcomes with your child before to bedtime. “These techniques will let your child know that she has control over the outcome.”
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 been the trigger for 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.
Our experienced editors work with trained journalists and qualified experts to compile accurate, insightful and helpful information about pregnancy, birth, early childhood development and parenting. Our content is reviewed regularly by our panel of advisors, which include medical doctors and healthcare professionals. Meet the Living & Loving Team and our Online Experts.