Scary dreams are, well, scary, both for the adults who worry about what’s frightening their children and for the youngsters who think their nightmares are real.
Bad dreams seem to peak during the preschool years, when fear of the dark is common. They’re also prevalent in children ages 6 to 10. That’s when kids tend to incorporate real-life fears – such as being kidnapped or shot – into their dreams. One study by Dutch researchers, in fact, found that 96 percent of 7- to 9-year-olds reported having nightmares, as compared with 68 percent of 4- to 6-year-olds and 76 percent of 10- to 12-year-olds. Another point to note: Nearly 70 percent of the kids studied said their scary dreams were about something they'd seen in the media (meaning TV, video games and online content).
Nightmares can also be a result of stress or a life change, such as moving, the birth of a sibling or family tensions. Like most dreams, they happen during the second half of a night’s sleep when rapid eye movement (REM) periods are longer and the brain is especially active.
Though fears vary – preschoolers are more likely to voice fantastical concerns like monsters and ghosts while older children fear things that could actually happen – there are similar ways to address them and ease the way toward a good night’s sleep (for all).
- Keep to a sleep routine. Sticking to a nightly ritual helps your child slow down and feel safe as they drift off to sleep. This might include a bath, reading or snuggling in bed.
- Avoid scary TV shows. This bears repeating. Instead, choose high-quality, age-appropriate programming that’s violence-free.
- Power down. Electronics, which inhibit production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, should be turned off at least a half hour before bedtime. All electronics should also be eliminated from the bedroom.
- Be understanding. Validate your child’s feelings and soothe their concerns. Instead of saying “That’s not real; go back to bed,” say “I can imagine how frightening that was but there's no bad guy in your room.” Reassure them you're there and let them know everyone dreams, and that sometimes those dreams are upsetting and can seem real, so it’s natural to feel spooked by them.
- Bring in a BFF. Help your child become attached to a security object such as a doll, blanket or teddy bear. Having a “best friend” in bed helps keep them relaxed throughout the night.
- Have fun in the dark. Make the darkness fun by playing flashlight tag or starting a treasure hunt where you search for things that glow in the dark. Many parents use glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling as a way to fend off fears while others have used “monster spray” to ward off worries. Dream catchers, bedside flashlights and nightlights also help.
- Teach coping skills. Use logic and personal advice to help your child learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Looking under the bed and saying, “There are no monsters under here,” doesn’t help. Instead, take out a calculator and count the number of nights they’ve slept in their house and then ask: “How many times have you seen a monster?” Or if their fear is more about a burglar, ask how many times a robber has broken in. If your youngster is afraid of something like an earthquake or a fire, help them focus on solutions by practicing your family’s fire escape plan or changing the batteries in the smoke alarms together. Reading stories about children who conquer their bedtime fears also helps. Lastly, try to retrain their brain when scary thoughts intrude by having them think about something they like such as the beach or a favorite family meal. And talk, too, about how you handle things you’re afraid of.
- Rewrite their nighttime narrative. Encourage your child to talk about new endings to scary dreams that are silly, magical or empowering. Maybe the bad guy falls into a bathtub full of spaghetti or a monster turns a giant chocolate chip ice cream cone.
- Help your child transition back to sleep. Discuss alternative, happy dreams your child would like to have and seal the deal by giving them a kiss to hold – in the palm of their hand – as you tiptoe out of the room.