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Children and nightmares — advice from a child psychologist

5 Jan 2021

Nightmares in children are common around the ages of 3-6. If you’re confused about what to do, Martin Forster, Child Psychologist at Livi, has great advice

Quick tips

  • Reassure your child that dreams are not real — this is vital
  • Nightmares are not the same as night terrors, and should be handled differently

The longer the coronavirus crisis continues, the greater the impact on our emotional health. And that includes children.

A survey by children’s charity World Vision has shown that almost a third of UK parents have noticed negative changes in their children’s behaviour since the start of the pandemic, including tantrums, fighting, crying, even physical symptoms like stomach aches — and nightmares.

The global lockdowns, social distancing and daily restrictions have disrupted our lives and children are just as likely as adults to feel emotions such as anxiety, worry and sadness.

But unlike adults, children might not have the language to express their feelings. So an increase in nightmares may occur. The good news is, there are many things parents and caregivers can do to help.

Why do children have nightmares?

Nightmares are common in children aged 3-6 years and most will grow out of them.

Like dreams, nightmares occur during the part of the sleep cycle known as rapid eye movement (REM), when the brain is more active. REM sleep first occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep, with cycles becoming increasingly longer throughout the night.

‘In the same way as dreams, nightmares are often a way to process the events and emotions happening in our daily lives,’ says Martin Forster, Child Psychologist at Livi.

‘For example, if something has upset them earlier in the day, is traumatising or causing them to worry, it can come out later in a nightmare,’ says Forster.

Nightmares or night terrors — what’s the difference?

Nightmares are often confused with night terrors, but the two are different. Night terrors are common in children aged 3-8 years old. They occur during deep sleep, when the body is relaxed and we usually don’t dream.

A child who experiences night terrors might scream, shout and thrash around in extreme panic, but they’re unaware of what’s happening because they’re still asleep.

‘It’s a bit like sleepwalking. The child might appear distressed but in the morning they’ll have no recollection of what happened,’ says Forster.

‘It’s best not to wake a child when they’re having a night terror, or they will wake up and feel fearful,’ Forster recommends. ‘If they’ve got up while having a night terror, just gently guide them back to their bed.

‘A nightmare is quite different, as the intense emotions will inevitably cause the child to wake up, usually in a state of distress and fear,’ he adds.

What’s the best way for you to respond when a child has a nightmare?

‘If your child wakes up having a nightmare, make sure you comfort them and make them feel safe and secure,’ says Forster.

‘Reassure your child that dreams aren’t real — this is important. But don’t go into the content of the dream. The idea is to calm them down.

‘If they’re really distressed, you can let them sleep in your bedroom. In fact, if a child is having recurring nightmares, this might be better for a few days or so. Some parents worry that it might establish a pattern that will be hard to break. But, once your child is sleeping normally again, they will usually be fine to sleep in their own bedroom again.’

What’s normal and what is not?

‘It’s normal for children to have the occasional nightmare and usually this is nothing to worry about,’ says Forster.

‘But if your child starts to experience nightmares regularly, this needs to be looked into. Is something causing them to feel stressed or worried? It’s not always the case, but there may be some issues that need to be addressed, perhaps at school or with their friends.

‘Also, if a child is frequently waking up in the night feeling terrified, this will disrupt their sleep so they feel tired the next day. Or it could be that, after a while, they start dreading falling asleep. So bedtime becomes an issue,’ he says.

What can cause nightmares?

‘It could simply be a one-off after watching a scary film,’ says Forster. ‘Or perhaps a friend has done something to upset them. Perhaps someone close has been ill or they’re worried about something bad happening to a parent or sibling.

‘Some children are very sensitive and it could be that they’re picking up on worries in the family.

‘In most cases, nightmares will go. Sometimes there’s no specific reason. Some children just naturally dream more than others, and they are also more likely to experience nightmares.

Should your child see an expert?

‘If your child is still having nightmares a few times a week, after a month ask your doctor for a referral to a child psychologist,’ says Forster. ‘This can help identify more complex issues at play such as problems within the family that are causing the child anxiety.’

Is there anything you can do to minimise nightmares?

‘A good tactic for young children to make them feel safe before they go to bed is to reassure them that they are protected,’ says Forster.

‘If they have a favourite teddy bear, you could say, “Teddy is always here to protect you. He’s watching over you and nothing bad can happen.”’

If a child keeps waking up in the night, you can help to ‘reprogramme’ what happens in their nightmare. The way to do this is to talk about — or draw — what’s happening in the nightmare and ask them to come up with a new ending, Forster recommends.

‘You could, for example, get them to imagine what would happen if Superman flies in to catch the bad guys. In this way, you’re helping your child to create a new story that has a positive ending. The more you talk about or draw it, the more you reinforce the new ending in their mind, until eventually they start to dream in a different way.’

How can you help children process big life changes?

The coronavirus crisis has made us all think about sickness and death more, and even very young children are picking up on this. They may even have lost a relative to Covid.

‘If your child has a lot of questions about illness and death and is worrying about it, don’t ignore it,’ says Foster.

‘It’s healthier to address their fears. Unfortunately, sickness and death are part of life and by talking to your child about them, you can help them cope.’

‘For example, if someone in the family has died, it’s important to involve the children in the procedures and rituals and not to hide it away,’ he says. ‘Helping your child navigate their way through difficult emotions such as sadness and grief can help them to cope better.’

Can you do anything to help prevent child nightmares?

‘Images can be powerful and children respond more intensely to something they’ve seen, rather than what they hear,’ Forster explains.

‘So, if your child is prone to nightmares, make sure they’re not exposed to distressing images on the news or in a movie. Seeing images of people in hospital as a result of the pandemic, for example, can make them more anxious and fearful about people they love getting ill. Try to protect your children from images and programmes that may distress them.’

This article has been approved by Martin Forster, Child Psychologist at Livi.

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