How to help your child when they have bad dreams

Did you know that over a third of pre-schoolers have a nightmare or night terrors at least once a fortnight?

It can be so hard to know what to do as a parent when your child has just woken up from a bad dream.  They are upset, you are upset and it’s the middle of the night too which always makes everything seem worse.  This can become especially upsetting for parents when their kids have bad dreams on a regular basis.

What’s the difference between nightmares and night terrors?

Nightmares are bad dreams that generally happen towards morning.  Triple P, the positive parenting program developed by the University of Queensland in Brisbane, says that they occur most often in children between 3 and 5 years of age.  Children often wake after a nightmare feeling scared and upset. Nightmares may occur following upsetting events during the day or for no obvious reason at all.  If your child has a reoccurring nightmare, talk to them during the day about what’s worrying them.  Consult a professional for help if you’re unable to get to the bottom of it.

Night terrors are far less common than nightmares and this is where children obviously have a scary or distressing dream but they stay asleep – even though sometimes their eyes are open.  They mostly occur in the older toddler or preschool years.  It can be hard to wake them and it’s actually best not to as they won’t remember their night terrors when they wake up.

Why do night terrors occur?

Terrors can occur because your child has a high fever or following a busy or stressful day.  When my son, Jesse, was 3 he used to have night terrors following the separation of my ex-husband and myself.  It was upsetting for me to watch but there really wasn’t anything to worry about.  Although I didn’t know that at the time and of course worried that he’d be permanently emotionally scarred!

What are the symptoms of night terrors?

These are common symptoms that kids experience when they are in the grip of night terrors and it’s exactly what Jesse would experience too:

  • Breathing rapidly
  • Racing heart beat
  • Loud, panicky calling out or screaming
  • Out of control thrashing of arms and legs
  • Sweating
  • A glassy stare – looking but not seeing

Triple P suggest that if your child has more than 1 episode of night terrors in a 4 month period, then you need to seek professional help.  That’s exactly what I did when Jesse started experiencing night terrors on a weekly basis.  The psychologist I took him to really helped both him and myself understand what was at the bottom of his terrors.  Thankfully they started becoming less frequent as sessions continued before disappearing altogether.

What can you do to help your child get back to sleep?

Below are four easy to follow steps to help you calm your child and help them settle back to sleep after a distressing dream.

Comfort and reassure your child

Mother Comforting Her ChildHold them close and explain that they’re safe.   Confidently tell them that things that happen in nightmares can’t really hurt them.    Try not to say that nightmares aren’t real because I’m sure they seemed real to your child and that may confuse them.   It’s really important to reassure them that they are safe because you are close by and there to look after them.

Listen to your child

Sometimes your child may want to talk about the nightmare and that’s totally understandable.  It helps us process emotions better when we can talk through them and talking through upsetting events can help us put things into perspective.  As a parent, the best thing you can do is to calmly listen to them and to not look worried.

Help your child relax

To help your child go back to sleep, encourage them to calm down and relax.  You can teach some simple mindfulness techniques like taking 3-5 deep breaths and/or going floppy like a rag doll.   Try not to lie down with them too often as this can lead to more sleep disruptions and fears in the future.  Just wait until they have calmed down sufficiently so that they are relaxed and then leave as you normally would when you put them to bed.

Leave a light on

Leaving a night light on can really help your child work out that they’re safe in their bedroom if they have another nightmare. This can help them realise that their dream was just a dream.  In reality they’re safe and sound in their bedroom.

Anky's HeadshotAre there any other parenting worries that I can help you solve? I’m an experienced  positive parenting trainer and life coach. Over the last decade I have helped numerous clients and parents raise happy, confident and resilient kids through positive parenting training and coaching. I have 15 positive parenting, life coaching and psychology-related qualifications which include Triple P. I run various positive parenting in Brisbane and also provides tailored coaching sessions for parents.