We all know that occasional nightmares are part of childhood but what can we do when the nightmares happen every night?
A frustrated mother recently posted her plea on a parenting website. Her son has recurring nightmares of malevolent extraterrestrials; the dreams happen every night. The family has stopped watching alien movies and she has explained to her son that those stories aren’t real, but the dreams persist. I don’t remember where I came across this posting, but as someone who has suffered from nightmares well into adulthood I’d like to take a moment to address the subject.
To work with childhood nightmares we need to look at three things: the way a child’s brain works, what nightmares are, and how to promote a good night’s rest (which is something even adults can embrace).
Did you know that your child is operating in a different wave pattern than you are? It’s true! Children under 12 spend most of their waking time in Theta state, whereas adults primarily stay in Beta. Why are children in Theta? This is their learning time. Children are soaking up information in order to learn how to survive. Their minds don’t know the difference between story and fact; it’s all real and everything is possible. This is important to note because it tells us two things. One, those violent movies are being registered in the subconscious as necessary information. Two, even though the child can logically agree that the stories are not real, their subconscious is working with the information as though the events truly happened.
I remember watching the movie Psycho when I was still pretty young; that infamous shower scene really got to me! It was quite a while, a few years in fact, before I could take a shower without thinking about someone whipping open the shower curtain. Sometime I even left the curtain partway open so I could keep an eye on the room. What happened was that my mind created a neural pathway associating being in the shower with danger. It takes time to re-route or override those pathways. They are created so that we “don’t keep stepping in the same hole” so to speak.
So, what does all of this have to do with nightmares? At night, a child’s mind is trying to sort and balance all the information recorded and absorbed that day. All of those stimuli have triggered specific emotional centers as well, and as the mind does its sorting these emotional centers are stimulated and strange dreams can result. A movie or story may have originally traumatized this child, creating a fear response “trigger.” Other stressful input such as news reports, crime dramas, or even family arguments can stimulate this same trigger. Even though the movies have stopped, the fear response is still active.
The way to begin reducing the nightmares is to not only avoid violent or stressful situations but also incorporate safe, relaxing experiences. Adults can benefit from this as well.
Allow for some wind-down time before going to bed, at least an hour but preferably two. Use this time to:
- Watch nature shows
- Take a warm bath
- Listen to relaxing music—nature sounds, lullabies, Native American flute, piano solos
- Read heart warming or funny stories
Have your discussions about the day, such as what happened at school, earlier in the evening, not during wind-down time. This time is for letting go of the day and nurturing a light mood and good feelings. Children sleep better when they feel safe, loved, and have happy pictures in their heads. Parents may find themselves sleeping better too!
Additional steps for working through recurring nightmares:
Offer your child the gift of self empowerment. Give them tools to help them through the fear and teach them to assert themselves in scary situations:
Give the child a special flashlight to take to bed or one of those “Dream Lites” animals that casts stars on the ceiling.
Create a special “Happy Dreams” song to sing together each night or an “It’s Only a Bad Dream” song for the child to sing to himself after waking from a nightmare.
During the daytime, sit quietly and let your child describe the dreams in detail. Ask questions about how the child feels during different parts of the dream and how the dream might play out differently for a better outcome. Encourage the child to re-write the script of the dream and roll-play this new scenario with him, featuring the child as the new hero of the story.
Have the child write a story or draw pictures of rising up against the monster or making the monster actually turn out to be a mouse in a costume (or some other funny thing).
One of the greatest lessons a child can learn is the difference between acting in a dangerous situation and reacting to fear.
Do you or your child suffer from nightmares? Do you have any stories to tell or tips to share?