Some nightmares are fairly normal for young children and
often originate from fears, anxiety, and misunderstanding. Usually these are
fairly typical and are sometimes caused by immature and inadequate processing
and understanding of what is and has gone on in the child’s life. Sometimes
nightmares arise from trauma or more significant anxiety or stressors. In these
cases, responsible adults need to do what they can to reduce the turmoil causing
fears and traumatic problems for the child. In situations of significant trauma,
the child may need both help processing the information and genuine reassurance
of safety. Sometimes the nightmares arise from the viewing of inappropriate
entertainment. This viewing, even on an occasional basis can cause behavioral
and psychological problems beyond the nightmare or even night terror. Terminate
the viewing or even hearing of these types of entertainment completely. That
usually means that when the child is in the house, you don’t watch it either
because you don’t know what the child may hear or if the child may get up for
some reason; and you certainly don’t want to be punitive of your child for
getting up in the night on an irregular basis for brief periods of time because
they feel they need you.
When there is trauma in the life of the child, even if
only witnessed, eliminating the trauma and processing through play therapy can
be very beneficial.
For simple, common nightmares, helping your child
reframe the nightmare into an empowering process through lucid dreaming can be
very helpful. As soon as the child has the nightmare, have them tell you about
it and then ask them if they could change something about the dream to make it
more pleasant or changing the dream in such a way as to allow the child to take
control of the situation, such as imagining the scary wolf to be a small
friendly puppy. When my oldest was about five, she was having bad dreams about
dark shadowy ghosts. We talked about it and since she had seen cartoons of
Casper the Friendly Ghost, I asked if she could imagine the ghosts in her dream
looked like Casper. She matter of factly responded and said “no” they are pink.
That was the end of the problem.
One of the essential keys here is to allow the child to
develop their own solution or resolution to the problem. This helps empower the
child and helps him or her to develop self-efficacy. For older children (and adults) they may want
to write it out in the form of a play. Help the child rethink the dream and when they awaken after a nightmare, have them tell you how it can end so they are safe and all is well. For older children have them think about the new, more positive ending as they awaken from the dream, taking control of the dream as soon as they can. This is a form of lucid dreaming.
While this technique can and usually will reduce more
ordinary nightmares, significant trauma and fear usually requires a more
in-depth solution to include the increase of safety/peace and the processing of
experiences (sometimes with the assistance of a