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Dealing with Nightmares: A Psychologist Reveals How to Beat Recurring Bad Dreams

Dealing with Nightmares: A Psychologist Reveals How to Beat Recurring Bad Dreams

Nightmares: nobody likes them. So, does anyone know how to prevent nightmares? And, if not, how is best to deal with the frightful aftermath?

Well, we’ve been chatting to Dr Susie Dawson, a Highly Specialist Counselling Psychologist working with children and young people, who has shared her insights on these terrifying terrors.

Why Do Kids Have Nightmares?

“Dreams are a way our brains process what has happened to us during the day, but because nightmares occur on the sleep-wake cusp, troubling images imagined are very vivid and tend to be remembered, causing strong emotional responses after waking up.

“This is can be particularly disturbing for children because of their difficulties differentiating what is real from what is not real.

“Children have nightmares for many different reasons. For example, they may be linked with natural developmental anxieties, worry about current events (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic and exams), or they could be associated with a scary movie watched just before going to bed. For some children, nightmares can also be a response to trauma, such as bullying.”

What Causes a Child to Have Nightmares Around Halloween Season?

“It is not unusual for young children to have bad dreams/nightmares, particularly after watching scary movies and around the time of Halloween when people are dressing up as monsters and ghosts as it can be really difficult for them to work out what is real and what is pretend.

“Going to bed late and being over tired are known triggers for nightmares in children too.”

How to Prevent Nightmares

“Parents and carers can help prevent nightmares by establishing a calming bedtime routine which includes going to bed at regular time and pre-bed activities such as watching stars through the window, taking a bath and having a warm milky drink.

“Electronics emitting blue light can inhibit production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. So, ideally tablets, televisions and mobile phones should be switched off at least 30 minutes before going to bed.

“It is best not to watch scary movies late at night. Instead, try spending time together thinking about what made your child feel happy during the day, which helps support a relaxed state of mind and reduce threat responses.

“Some children really benefit from having a special stuffed toy on the bed which they agree to protect and which also “protects them”. Just like us adults. Many children are afraid of the unknown, so having a night light or a flashlight by the bed can reduce fear if a child is afraid of the dark.

“It is also helpful not to avoid what is scary during the day. Talking with a child about things they feel afraid of (such as dolls or monsters under the bed) can build distress tolerance skills, but it is best not to do this at night-time or just before bed.”

Can You Stop Your Child Having Nightmares?

“Persistent nightmares may need be discussed with your child’s GP to work out if more specialist support is required.

“However, it can be useful to evaluate events or movies that could have triggered the nightmare and look for any patterns that are emerging. Gently redirecting a child’s attention to thinking about something good or funny that happened the day before can also help prepare a safe foundation for sleep and prevent bad dreams. Sometimes a glass of water or cup of warm milk can be enough to do this.”

How to Calm Down from a Nightmare, or Help Your Child to Settle

“When a child wakes up from a nightmare, they need to be shown understanding. The monsters are very real to them and their anxiety and distress needs to be acknowledged and validated.

“Providing a safe space for a child to talk about their nightmare can help with processing upsetting memories and images.

“Children need to know everything is OK and that “the monster under their bed” is not real. Hugs and cuddles can also offer reassurance.

“Grounding techniques using the five senses can be really helpful in bringing a child back to the present moment. For example, counting down from 5 to 1, then asking the child to name five things they can see, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell and one thing they can taste (such as warm milk).

“Children need reassurance that nightmares cannot hurt them. Imagining together a different “happy” ending to a nightmare can also help re-script an unpleasant nightmare memory.

“Making a dream catcher or drawing a nightmare and then throwing it away may help a child feel more in control of what is happening.

“Whilst it is normal for most young children to experience nightmares, it is important to talk with them about the content of their nightmares and notice any recurrent themes and/or patterns that could suggest a child is in distress.”

Learn More About Nightmares

We’ve run a survey of 2,000 people to find out how nightmares affect yours and your children’s sleep. From how much sleep is lost due to nightmares, to what the most common nightmare themes are, read ‘to discover what we found.

Alternatively, if you think making your child’s room more soothing and comforting could help, take a look at our beds for kids.