What could be behind your child’s nightmares? | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

It is important for parents to address a child’s fear when the kid wakes up distressed or scared


As a child, one of the things I used to pray for before going to sleep was for a peaceful night’s rest. I used to specifically ask that I have sweet dreams and no nightmares.


It must have been a real fear for me to include in my prayers not to have nightmares, though looking back, I can’t recall having had one at all.


But for the last year or so, this is has also become part of my kids’ prayers. They sleep in the master bedroom, so it’s not unusual for me to wake up in the middle of the night to find one of them standing beside me, asking to sleep in our bed or for me to sleep in theirs.


I don’t think their nightmares occur more frequently than normal. Just like everybody, they get a bad dream from time to time.


They are both old enough to tell the difference between reality and fantasy, so they understand when I tell them, “It’s just a dream.”


And yet, every night, they take precautions against nightmares that I wonder if, maybe, children in general are more sensitive to dreams. Most adults will tell you the same things—“I don’t dream when I sleep”—but children never seem to run out of dreams, whether good or bad.


A quick check online revealed numerous websites with articles dedicated to a broad range of subjects related to sleep and dreams. It is said that part of the normal brain development of children from ages five to eight, or preschoolers to early school age, is the broadening of their imagination.


This is the phase when they become conscious of real dangers that can bring harm. However, because their understanding and rational thinking are limited, their fears are magnified.


Reasoning capacity


Take a young child who is afraid of snakes. A rational adult knows that the chances of a snake entering one’s room in a city home is next to impossible. However, to a young child whose reasoning capacity is not yet fully developed, there is nothing to stop him/her from accepting this imagined scenario as a possibility.


The same thing may happen when they overhear stories of burglaries and kidnappings from the news or from adults. The kids may bring the anxiety from their fears as they go to bed, making them more susceptible to nightmares.


This explains why children have many fears that come out before going to bed. From monsters hiding in closets and under their beds to what is lurking in the dark, their imagination can really run wild!


Sometimes their anxieties may be a product of something that is not seen, but felt, such as tension from family problems or new developments/changes in their lives.


But there are also times when nightmares come from nowhere.


Let me clarify that there is a difference between nightmares and night terrors, as explained on www.sleepfoundation.org. Night terrors usually occur in the earlier part of the evening, during a non-REM (rapid eye movement) state. The child may suddenly sit up in bed, upset and agitated. However, because the child is not having a nightmare, but is rather caught in a state between being awake and asleep, he/she is not fully conscious of what is happening and will not respond to a parent’s soothing actions.


Stay with the kid for a while until he/she goes back to sleep. In the morning the child probably won’t remembering anything. Night terrors happen much rarely than nightmares.


REM state


On the other hand, nightmares usually occur in the later part of the evening, in the REM state—during which the sleeper experiences random movement of the eyes, low muscle tone throughout the body and a propensity to dream vividly. A child who wakes up from a nightmare is one who will respond to parental comfort and reassurance.


Regardless of what caused the nightmare, it is important for parents to address a child’s fear when the kid wakes up distressed or scared. According to www.babycenter.com, “Physical reassurance is important.” If you hear your child, or your child comes to you, hold the kid close and do some physical soothing: Rub his/her back or whatever works best.


If your child is receptive, you may want to ask what the dream was about so that you can explain that it was not real. However, if the child does not want to talk about it, don’t force the issue. Also, it is important to “respect their fears” because, regardless of how impossible the dream may have been, “the emotions conjured by a nightmare are very real.”


While you want to be there for your child, it would also benefit the kid to learn “coping skills” during times when you may not be around. During the day, you can teach your child to think of a “happy ending” to the dream, or upon waking up, to find comfort in prayers or think of reasons why the dream couldn’t be real.


You can also try creating a soothing bedtime routine. Of course this is no guarantee that the child will not have any nightmares, but a relaxed atmosphere at night may help soothe any anxieties or fears. Most children enjoy a night wash-up and pleasant story at bedtime. A prayer may also help bring about a sense of security.


Speaking of security, children also enjoy sleeping with items that give them comfort, such as a favorite teddy bear, pillow or blanket.


However, if you feel that there is a deeper reason for your child’s nightmares and fears at night, you may want to probe and look into it during the day, when your child is calm and relaxed. Persistent nightmares and extreme fears may be a sign of emotional problems that need to be resolved professionally.


Here’s to peaceful nights for both you and your child!

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