"Mommy! Daddy! I had a nightmare!"
These words can make your heart sink. How does a parent get inside their child's head and "protect" them from the "boogyman?"
The answer is, frankly, you can't. But there IS a way to help your child learn how to face their nightmares, overcome them, and have this newly found confidence carry over into their waking world as well. After all, that bully on the bus won't be as intimidating to a child who has slain a dragon.
My background in psychology came in handy when my five-year-old daughter was too afraid to fall asleep for fear of having her recurring nightmare. I told her that the dream isn't happening to her, but rather, the dream is happening within her mind.
Dream experiences can affect how we perceive ourselves -- disengaged and victimized, or active and powerful.
Because of this fact, she is the most powerful character in her dream world. As long as she is aware that she is in a dream, she can actively participate -- and have control -- in her dreams. This dream-awareness is scientifically referred to as lucid dreaming.
Although dreams are symbolic and emotional, the experiences we have in our dream world are neurological experiences, just as the experiences we have in our waking world.
So a well-intentioned parent's response to a child that his nightmare isn't real is not only confusing and invalidating, but is technically, incorrect. Dream world experiences are just as real as waking world experiences; therefore, dream experiences can affect how we perceive ourselves -- disengaged and victimized, or active and powerful.
Knowledge is Power
Children have a wonderful suspension of disbelief. If you tell them that something is true, more often than not they will take it as fact. Children, generally, have limitless imagination, infinite creativity and a persistent sense of optimism. Simply suggesting to them that they can participate in a world where the laws of time and space are meaningless is often all they need to know to get the ball rolling.
When dealing with a child's nightmare, give them the opportunity to resolve the conflict themselves. Ask the child how they would like for the bad dream to be resolved or what might make them feel better in their dream. Suggest several options that make sense, but ultimately leave it up to the dreamer to guide their own solution.
Rest is Best
One of the fundamental functions of sleep is to repair and rejuvenate the body and brain. Most adult dreamers report having lucid experiences after approximately five hours of sleep.
For children, however, it is important that they are in bed (with no screens) approximately nine to ten hours before they would need to wake in the morning so that their brain has the time it needs to rehabilitate before their lucid dreaming adventures begin.
Value Your (Child's) Dreams
Dreams are valuable for cognitive development, learning from experiences and making sense of our personal emotional triggers. In our dream world we interact within symbolic situations and have experiences that can help us gain insight and self-realization.
By performing "reality checks" throughout your waking day, you are more likely to check in while in a dream as well. One simple reality check to perform with your child can be done by pressing the index finger of one hand through the palm of the other hand. If your finger doesn't go through, you're in your waking world. If your finger slides through the palm of your other hand, you're in your dream world!
Practice a reality check with your child every time you see the moon in the sky, observe anything that is particularly beautiful, or if you're feeling nervous, anxious or downright scared -- you may find that you're dreaming.
Intend to Dream
If you don't already have one, establish a bedtime routine that your family can stick with. For best results, your routine should begin by dimming the lights and shutting off all electronic devices (i.e., screens) a bare minimum of one hour before bedtime.
You can help sooth your child into dreamland by reading a rhythmic, rhyming bedtime story. It may be the perfect platform to help open the conversation about what your child would like to dream about that night.
Aid Dream Recall
To get the most out of their dream experiences, your child may need help remembering their dreams. You can facilitate their dream recall simply by asking them about their dreams first thing in the morning, or give your child a few minutes each morning to jot down their memories in their own (confidential) dream journal.
Suggest using a combination of words and images to help them remember as much of the detail (sights, smells, emotional reactions) as possible. Before long, they will realize the power that they possess while in their dream worlds.
In addition to facing their fears and developing coping strategies for dealing with life's emotionally charged situations, they will open doors within their mind that can lead them toward creativity, problem solving, and introspection.
Renee Frances is an English teacher, former professor of psychology, and mom of two beautiful dreamers. Her Good Night Fairy children's picture book series is written to give families real tools to help them deal with common sleep issues and has been acknowledged by the Canadian Sleep Society as "...fun and informative... making bedtime a positive and empowering experience."
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