Bad dreams and nightmares (which are defined as bad dreams that cause the sleeper to wake up suddenly) are very common in children. A study from The Netherlands by Peter Muris and his colleagues found that 67 percent of four- to six-year-olds reported having scary dreams sometimes or often, compared to 96 percent of seven- to nine-year-olds and 76 percent of ten- to twelve-year-olds.
Other research shows that although most of the dreams children have are pleasant, upsetting dreams happen often. Piroska Sándor and colleagues looked at six weeks’ worth of dream records, collected by parents, from children ages four to eight years. The children reported that 27 percent of their dreams featured negative or upsetting emotions. (Fifty-nine percent of their dreams were positive, and the rest were emotionally neutral). Children over six are less likely than younger kids to tell their parents about nightmares.
What Are the Topics of Children‘s Nightmares?
Verbal one- to two-year-olds can often name for parents what frightened them in a nightmare, but it’s certainly easier for researchers to study nightmares in older children. In the Netherlands study, preschoolers most frequently described scary dreams featuring: 1) imaginary creatures such as ghosts or monsters; 2) getting hurt or someone they love being harmed; and 3) animals. The older children also frequently mentioned scary dreams about imaginary creatures and injury, but they were less likely to mention scary dreams about animals and more likely to mention dreams about being kidnapped.
Across all ages, 70 percent of children said that the topic of their scary dreams was influenced by information they gained, such as seeing a news story about a kidnapper on television. Only 15 percent said their scary dreams were linked to real experiences.
Bad Dreams and Anxiety
Many studies have found a strong link between scary dreams or nightmares and daytime stress or anxiety. In general, kids who are more anxious during the day tend to have nightmares more often. It’s not clear which causes what: being anxious may cause kids to have more nightmares and to perceive their dreams as more frightening, or having more nightmares may carry over to greater anxiety during the day. It’s also possible that other factors, such as stressful life events, might cause both more daytime anxiety and more nightmares. Although some theorists believe that scary dreams are a way of working through upsetting material, others say they’re a sign of emotional overload.
How Can Parents Help?
Addressing daytime stress and establishing good sleep habits are useful strategies for preventing nightmares in children. Sleep-deprived children are more likely to have nightmares, but scary dreams can also cause kids to resist going to bed. Regular, soothing bedtime routines can help kids unwind. Here are other strategies you may want to consider.
Teach coping strategies. Knowing what to do in a tough situation helps kids feel better able to cope. Children with frequent nightmares are often afraid at bedtime. Teach your child to relax through deep breathing, muscle relaxation, or visualizing happy memories, fun plans, or favorite books and movies. Some children like counting up by threes or down from 100 to clear their minds. Distracting your child with a positive image right after a nightmare often helps it fade. Some children like having a flashlight, dream catcher, or “monster spray” by their bedside to minimize or manage scary dreams.
Provide a nighttime partner. Jonathan Kushnir and Avi Sadeh at Tel Aviv University gave preschool children with nighttime fears a stuffed animal they called “huggypuppy” and told the children either that the puppy used to be happy and was now sad, so the children needed to comfort it and help it not feel scared at night, or that the puppy would protect the children at night. Both strategies led to fewer nighttime fears and reduced parent involvement at night. Benefits continued for at least six months after this intervention.
Teach about dreams. Elementary school-age children may have beliefs about dreams that you need to correct. For instance, they may think that dreams are a prophecy of a future event, that by dreaming something they can cause it to occur, or that the bad dreams are a punishment for something they have done. The key idea to convey is that dreams are just thoughts, and thoughts are never dangerous. One way to demonstrate this, sometime during the day, is to have your child close her eyes and imagine—as hard she can—that her thumbs have turned green. Then she should open her eyes and check for a color change. Repeat until your child is convinced that thoughts won’t cause something bad to happen.
Rewrite the story. Children with more intense nighttime fears tend to have strong imaginations and greater difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. Because they can imagine scary situations vividly, those situations feel very real. Just telling frightened young children, “It’s not real!” isn’t helpful when the pictures in their head seem so big and compelling. Instead, tell your child, “You’re in charge of your imagination. Blink your eyes and change the story.” You may need to help your child imagine a happy or silly ending to the nightmare. For instance, your child could imagine sucking up the monster with a giant vacuum or waving a lightsaber to make the monster disappear—poof! If memories of a bad dream persist during the day, you may want have your child draw a picture to change the story.
Has your child had a recurring nightmare?
Do you remember a nightmare you had as a child?
This article is for general educational purposes only. It does not constitute and should not substitute for individual professional advice, psychotherapy, or the provision of psychological services.