Each September I have an influx of parents calling my office, worried about their child's level of anxiety. Kids often find the transition to a new school year emotionally taxing. They need to navigate the challenges of a new teacher and often they'll have new classmates as well. Some even need to find their way around a new school. Many children also need to re-regulate their sleep after spending the summer staying up much later than usual. This combination of stress factors can lead children to have nightmares and even night terrors.
I am often asked why kids seem to have so many nightmares. It is more common for children and young people to have nightmares, because the psyche of a young person is not completely developed. When a new event is experienced, the child needs to process it and make sense of it. Much of this processing happens during our dreams. When a young person experiences a frightening or traumatic event, that event kind of bounces around in the psyche trying to be processed. And they can frightened by things you might not expect. It can be a simple as something they saw briefly on TV or on the playground. So what can you do?
Night terrors versus nightmares
It's important to distinguish between "night terrors" and "nightmares." Night terrors are more rare and they can be much more frightening to parents. Night terrors are almost like a panic attack in the middle of deep sleep. The child may sit upright but not be fully conscious. A child will not likely remember a night terror the next day, just like they may not recall sleepwalking. You should not try to wake a child during a night terror. When my child had night terrors, I just lay beside him and tried to comfort him. You cannot "process" a night terror the next day with your child, the way you often can with a nightmare. But you can think through environmental triggers and try to mitigate those.
On the other hand, nightmares often need to be processed. A child will wake up and be alert after having one. Gently ask them to explain what was happening in the nightmare. Encourage your child to talk it through and then comfort and reassure them afterwards. Do not intensify fears, but rather push back against them. Make them smaller, and make them seem completely unlikely or unrealistic. For example, if your child had a nightmare about falling off a structure at their school playground, reassure your child that they are safe. He or she is safe. A nightmare is not a premonition that something bad is going to happen.
Follow your intuition
Sometimes nightmares can be a red flag that something is not right in your child's life. Maybe a bully at school has targeted them but they haven't been able to tell you during their waking hours. Perhaps they've been watching content they aren't ready to handle at a friend's house. If your child's nightmares are raising questions for you, follow your parental intuition. Talk to the teacher. Talk to your family doctor. If you can, seek out a child psychologist or therapist.
There are strategies for parents to help their children get a better night's rest. A really great coping method I have used is the "worry box." At bedtime, have your child write down their worries and lock them in a box with a key. You can take this box and "hold onto" those worries so the child doesn't have to. When I am seeing a child in therapy, I encourage the child to bring the worry box with them. We can then process the worries together and handle them properly.
With younger preschool-aged kids who are worried that there are monsters under the bed, I have seen good results from creating a "No More Monsters Spray." You need to explain that there are no such things as monsters, but if the child's imagination is so active that they have trouble believing you, the spray will help their imagination settle down. All you need is a little spray bottle with water and a little lavender oil with a cute homemade label on it. As part of the bedtime ritual, spray a little "No More Monsters Spray" around the bed to keep the monsters out of your imagination. Additional strategies about how to help your child manage anxiety can be found on familysparks.com.
Routines can really help
Overall, sleep needs good "sleep hygiene" to be effective. Have a set bedtime. Stop using screens well before bedtime. Have bedtime rituals you go through each night. Have a room with good airflow and limited light. Read and/or sing before bed. Encourage everyone in your family to have healthy bedtime routines. When a child is living between two parental homes, the co-parents need to work together to ensure the nighttime routines are consistent.
Big transitions like going back to school can feel overwhelming for children. By equipping yourself with knowledge and strategies to counter this stress, you can lighten this burden, help your children find their back-to-school rhythm and have more restful nights.
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