I’ve recently had a few friends and clients reach out to me about nightmares and night fears. It’s October, the month of Halloween, and there isn’t a better time to address these two topics than now!
I was never one to have nightmares, but my older sister had them as a child and continues to have them as an adult. As a mental health professional, I would venture to guess that her lifelong nightmares have a lot to do with her way of processing anxiety. Do you tend to have nightmares or bad dreams when anxious or stressed? Did you ever have a missing a school final or SAT nightmare?
In addition to nightmares being tied to anxiety and stress, I’ve heard of people having nightmares when they have a physical ailment or physical pain, which then become a part of a terrible dream. There are also many children who watch something scary, and then it literally haunts them in their dreams. Irregular nightmares for children of all ages are rather normal and tend occur after 12am.
To respond to a child with a nightmare, you simply wake them and shower them with love and kisses. Do remind your child that you are there for them and comfort them until they are ready to get back to sleep. There is no need to get into details about the nightmare in the middle of the night, but feel free to cover it the next day if the child wants to process it with you.
When nightmares become a regular occurrence and a child’s sleep is disrupted regularly due to terrifying dreams, I am comfortable saying that at that point it is a good idea to reach out to a mental health professional.
Night fears are those lovely fears that keep your child from going to sleep at night or keep them awake in the middle of the night after a wake up. Night fears do not occur while the child is asleep, but when the child is awake.
Night fears can include:
• The Dark
• And anything else that can cause a bit of fear/trauma in a child’s day
To address night fears, it is best if you can find out the source of the fear. Doing so allows you to address it head on rather than with a general problem-solving measure.
Sometimes a very dim nightlight is all that is needed (be sure it doesn’t create weird shadows) if they are afraid of the dark. Opening their door while they sleep and promising to check on them can cause some comfort if they are afraid of being alone. Sometimes “monster spray” can take care of the monsters under the bed, and a dream catcher can catch the scary dreams that are floating about. I love a new stuffed animal who can be a companion when things get weird or a sound machine set to white noise to drown out any weird environmental noises.
One of my all-time favorites is creating a sleeping space in the backyard for a creature that a child may be scared of. After making the sleeping house or nest you tell the child that the creature will sleep much better there than in their room. Be sure to say goodnight to the creature and their sleeping house every night before bed and remind them that said creature does not like sleeping in houses one bit.
Last but not least, there are 2 books that I recently read to my 3-year-old for approval, “No Such Thing” by Jackie French Koller to address a fear of monsters and “Orion and the Dark” by Emma Yarlett to address being scared of the dark. Both are very well written and speak to the age (2-4 year olds) who often have a hard time separating make believe from reality.
Night fears are very common for little ones, especially 2-4 year olds. When big changes happen, like welcoming a new sibling or moving to a new home, new fears can crop up. Be patient with your child and use your life experience to figure out how you would want someone to address your fear. Often times the little humans in our lives do not think so differently than we do. As always, feel free to reach out to me if you need any additional assistance.