Every parent either has been through a nightmare or will go through a nightmare with their child at some point in time. And unfortunately, there are numerous households who struggle with nightmares on a very regular basis.
The house is quiet, you are warm and cozy in your bed and out of the darkness comes a loud cry from your child’s bedroom. You sit up, quietly listening for a bit to see if they will calm down on their own. But, not tonight, so you wipe your eyes, put on your robe and head to your child’s room, thinking of what will work to get her back to sleep.
You find a little lump huddled under the covers too scared to come out, and you desperately try to convince her that she is okay and can go back to sleep. As you work to calm her, your mind wanders to the list of things you have to do in a few hours, and to just how much coffee you are going to need to get through the day. You are already calculating the number of tantrums you will endure from your child’s lack of sleep, and in a moment of weakness, you wonder what would happen if you were to simply call in sick for work tomorrow.
I am here to tell you that there is a better way! You do not need to go many nights with little to no sleep. You do not need to sleep with your child five out of seven nights per week. And, you do not need to survive on an IV drip of caffeine every day. There is peaceful sleep in your future. How you say? No, I am not offering a miracle drug, but I can offer some tried and true tips to help your child work through nightmares more easily.
Use the Right Language
Many of us when we see a child crying or very upset will tell them that they are “okay.” I am not sure why we do this, because they are clearly not okay, or they would not be upset, right? The message we are actually trying to convey is “you are safe.” What they hear though, is “I don’t care, and your reason for being upset is invalid.” Because of this, telling them that they are okay can actually make things worse. For one, they can lose trust that their caregiver actually cares enough to help them with their problems. And two, they start to believe that their feelings are insignificant. When calming your child, say what you really mean, which is “You are safe.” Feeling unsafe is what caused the problem in the first place, so helping them to realize that it was a dream and they are safe will help them regulate their emotions faster.
Validate and Name Their Emotions
Once you have convinced them that they are safe, tell them that they look scared, and ask them what happened. Listen to them, and even if their dream seems silly, validate their feelings and tell them it is okay to feel that way. The next day, you may even want to talk to your child about being scared, and how that is a normal part of life.
Quite often, children will have nightmares during times that are stressful in their waking world. Maybe they are learning to tie their shoes, or they transitioned to a new group at daycare. Pay attention to changes that have occurred in your child’s routine, and talk to them. Help them bring words to any feelings they may have regarding the changes. Conquering daytime fears will have a large impact on the nighttime ones.
Review Your Child’s Media
As you know, what is okay for one child may not be for another. I was talking to my daughter’s hairdresser the other day, and she asked me if my kids had seen the movie “Trolls.” We have not seen it largely because my older boys said if was for babies, and thereby no one wanted to see it, and now I am glad we didn’t. As she cut my daughter’s hair, she told me that her little girl was quite scared of some of the scenes in the movie. “Trolls” is rated PG, so it is very likely that there are some scenes that might frighten younger children.
We go by the listed age rating when allowing our children to watch movies. Yes, we are the strict parents for not letting them watch “Transformers” at age 5, but we also see a lot fewer nightmares in our house as well. If we are unsure if a movie is kid friendly, we view it first, and then let them watch if we deem it appropriate.
With all of the technological advances in the movie industry, movies are becoming more and more realistic. I remember watching old “Godzilla” movies, and they weren’t scary to me even in Kindergarten. In fact, the effects were so bad most of the time, I spent most of the movie laughing. However, those days are over, and so as parents, we really need to watch this area of our children’s lives.
Beds Are For Sleeping
If your child associates eating, watching TV or playing with their bed, they will be less likely to fall asleep quickly, as well as remain sleeping all night. It may be that your child is not having a nightmare as much as they are simply waking in the night and scared to be alone in the dark. Helping your child associate sleep with their bed is an important step to helping them fall asleep and stay asleep until morning.
Have a Nighttime Routine
Children feel much safer when they have a usual routine, and bedtime is no different. Establish and stick to a nightly bedtime, and then make a habit about it. PJ’s first, followed by brushing teeth, followed by going potty, followed by a relaxing book. Find what works in your house, and then stick to it. This will help your little one fall asleep faster, and to feel more secure in their bed. When they feel calm and secure as they fall asleep, they will also tend to have calming dreams.
Empower Your Child
If you are their only line of defense against their nightmares and the things in the night that make them scared, you will never get any sleep, and neither will your child. This means that you will need to provide your child with the tools necessary to help them deal with this on their own. Now I hope this goes without saying, but before implementing any nightmare plan with your child, always make certain they know they can still come to you if it is more than they can handle.
With that said, I ask you to get creative. You know your child best, as well as the kinds of things that will make them feel safe. For some kids, it is a simply lovey and a nightlight. We created “Monster Spray.” My kids were all afraid of that dreaded monster-under-the-bed. So, monster spray was created. I simply took an air freshener can, and glued a “Monster Spray” label on it. Anyone who has ever watched “Monster’s Inc.” knows that monsters hate good smelling things. That is why their air freshener smells like wet dog or smelly feet.
Long story short, they slept with “Monster Spray” near their beds, and any time that they felt scared, they could spray it, and it would protect them. They loved it, and so did I. No more heavily caffeinated days, well not as many anyway. And the best part, is they started to feel empowered, as if they had some control over their nightmares and their fears in the dark. Their confidence rose, and the nightmares quickly stopped. Yes, they will eventually figure out that this is a little white lie, but so is the Tooth Fairy, right? And if it helps, I say it is worth it.
If you are struggling with nightmares or fear of the dark, I encourage you to try these simple things and see if it helps, and if you have a tip that has worked well in your house, please share it in the comments, so we all can benefit!