Q. Could your child's dreams reveal that they are anxious, being bullied or worried about family members?
A. Although nightmares can be very distressing to the child and the parent, they are a normal part of growing up and seem to be the result of the brain processing information. They do not necessarily signal serious problems but may indicate that a child is actively coping with a new challenge. Nightmares can be reactions to upsetting events, situations, or relationships. They can reflect the struggle to learn to deal with childhood fears and problems and can occur in response to events such as entering school, bullying, moving to a new neighborhood or living through a parent’s divorce or remarriage.
Nightmares can also occur in response to stress, illness (for instance, fever), medications, trauma, images on television and sleep deprivation. As nightmares can be a child's way of coping with something that he or she cannot otherwise manage, children may experience more frequent nightmares during periods of stress, crisis, or change. This may signal that the child is feeling overwhelmed or insecure. Nightmares tend to decrease as children get older and as they develop ways to manage their fears and to gain more control over their world.
Q. How can you decode a child’s dream?
A. It can be difficult to determine if your child's dreams are related to life events or their current emotional state; this is why further communication and exploration around their dream experience can be helpful.
As a parent, it is important to pay attention to things that are going on in your child's life. It may be useful for parents to keep a journal of the stressors and positive events that are occurring in your child's day in effort to increase awareness around how this may be impacting their sleep and dream patterns.
Although nightmares can be normal, when they persist, are recurring, or when their content is consistently violent or disturbing, they could be the result of an underlying psychological or medical cause. This may be the time to seek professional help from a therapist or a pediatrician.
Q. What can you do as a parent when your kid has a nightmare?
A. When your child has a nightmare, it is important to provide reassurance. Sit with them and help to calm and soothe them by cuddling them and reassuring them that you are there to keep them safe. Invite your child to tell you about their dream; this can help to calm them and to relieve anxiety. It will also invite communication about your child’s experience. This, in turn, can provide further insight into whether their dream may be linked to stressors that they are facing and present an opportunity to resolve emotional challenges.
Q. Is there something parents can do during the daytime to help manage bad dreams?
A. You can support your child in coming up with creative solutions to manage their nightmares. For example, guide your child to imagine changes in the outcome of a bad dream. Encourage them to use their creativity to draw, write or role-play a new outcome. By inviting your child to explore creative solutions to dream dilemmas, you are empowering them to work through dream challenges rather than feeling threatened or helpless. This can help in the development of assertiveness, which can be transferred to having increased confidence in managing challenges that arise in their waking hours.
Over time, a parent's empathetic responses can help to break the cycle of bad dreams, create an opportunity to increase the connection between parent and child, increase child and collaborative family problem-solving, and support the development of assertiveness in your child.
Check out these great recipes that will help your kids sleep better.
Q. What about pleasant dreams? Do parents worry about the bad and forget to ask about good dreams?
A. When problems show up in our lives, they tend to take the spotlight. Although it is important to acknowledge problems so that we can come up with solutions and offer support to our children, it is equally important to focus on the positives that are occurring in their lives and to celebrate their accomplishments and strengths. Showing interest in your child's positive dream experiences can create further opportunity for connecting with your child, understanding their world, and role modeling the importance of also celebrating positive experiences versus only focusing on worries or anxieties.
We cannot control every risk that our children encounter. It is important to focus on what you have control over that can enrich your child’s life and support to counteract the risks. These "protective factors" include developing a strong, loving, and supportive relationship with your child that promotes trust, safety and security.
Q. Is there a way to cultivate better dreams?
A. As we know, dreams can be affected by our level of anxiety. It is important to create an environment for your child that promotes calmness and security. The quality of children's sleep can be influenced by creating a regular sleep schedule and bedtime routine. Establish a calming-down period before bedtime that avoids excessive stimulation (such as television or video games) and incorporates activities that soothe (for instance, a bedtime snack, bedtime stories or soothing songs). Children who are experiencing a fear of the dark may benefit from a nightlight. You can incorporate child-appropriate relaxation techniques (child meditation, breathing, soothing visuals), or items that help calm your child.
Tap into your child's imagination to introduce coping tools that create calm at bedtime, including dream catchers, or worry dolls to hold your child’s worries while they sleep. Children may benefit from having a favorite stuffed toy or an imagined “sleep buddy” or "sleep angel" that they make room for in their bed to help protect them and bring pleasant dreams.
Find out about your child's sleep needs here.