Nightmare Remedies: Helping Your Child Tame the Demons of the Night

by Alan Siegel, Ph.D.

Our children do not have to suffer their nightmares in silence, brooding about the lingering feeling of suffocation left by the formless ghost or shuddering at the memory of the razor-sharp teeth of a pack of wolves ripping into their flesh. There are remedies for even the most dreadful nightmares.

Unfortunately, the raw terror that lingers after a nightmare may accentuate a child’s insecurity and bring on anxiety for hours or even days afterward. It may even disturb their ability to sleep by inducing insomnia, or fears and phobias about sleeping and dreaming. To help your child restore their capacity to sleep and to harness the healing and creative potential of scary dreams, we must help them break the spell of their nightmares.

The silver lining of painful nightmares is that they shine a spotlight on the issues that are the most upsetting for your child. Every nightmare, no matter how distressing, contains vital information about crucial emotional challenges in your child’s life. To a parent whose ears and heart are open, listening to the most distressing nightmares is like hearing your child’s unconscious, speaking directly to you delivering a special call for help.

Most nightmares are a normal part of coping with changes in our lives. They are not necessarily a sign of pathology and may even be a positive indication that we are actively coping with a new challenge. For children, this could occur in response to such events as entering school, moving to a new neighborhood or living through a divorce or remarriage.

Using role-playing and fantasy rehearsals, parents can coach their children to assert their magical powers and tame the frights of the night. New endings for dreams can be created so that falling dreams become floating dreams and chase dreams end with the capture of the villain. When we give our children reassurance and encouragement to explore creative solutions to dream dilemmas, we restore their ability to play with the images in their nightmares rather than feeling threatened or demoralized. These assertiveness skills carry over into future dream confrontations and lead to greater confidence to face waking challenges.

CHILDREN’S NIGHTMARES

Children suffer more frequent nightmares than their parents and, prior to the age of six, nightmares are especially common. Nightmares diminish as children grow older, master their fears, and gain more control over their world.
Most nightmares are a normal part of coping with changes in our lives. They are not necessarily a sign of pathology and may even be a positive indication that we are actively coping with a new challenge. For children, this could occur in response to such events as entering school, moving to a new neighborhood or living through a divorce or remarriage.

A good working assumption is that many nightmares in children are reactions to upsetting events, situations and relationships. It is important to keep in mind that often a stress such as moving to a new neighborhood will be complicated by a chain reaction of other changes. Nightmares will usually diminish in intensity and frequency as the child and the family recover and cope with stresses such as a death in the family or birth of a new family member.

RECURRING NIGHTMARES

Anyone who keeps track of their dreams and nightmares will begin to notice recurring symbols and patterns. Studies of people who have kept dream journals for as long as 50 years have shown that certain animals or houses or people who appear in a person’s childhood or teenage dreams will still turn up when their hair is gray. Your own personal repertoire of nightmare symbols may emerge early in childhood, evolving and transforming throughout your life span. Repeating dream patterns may also be influenced by disturbing images from television and film, family fears, cultural stereotypes, myths, and religious beliefs and stories.

What can we learn from recurrent dreams? They are often a warning of lingering psychological conflicts. For example, children of divorce frequently dream that their parents have reunited; abuse survivors are often victims or perpetrators of violence in their dreams; and adopted children intermittently dream of their birth parents.

Conversely, changes within recurring dreams may signal the onset of resolving a psychological impasse. For example, a survivor of child abuse who was making a therapeutic breakthrough in her emotional recovery dreamed of triumphing over a shadowy, hostile figure that had threatened and chased her in innumerable prior nightmares.

STAGES OF RESOLUTION IN RECURRING DREAMS

Three stages of resolution can be identified in children’s nightmares.

  • Threat: In the dream, a main character is threatened and unable to mount any defense. For example, he or she may be paralyzed while trying to flee the jaws of a hungry ghost imprisoned by aliens.
  • Struggle: Attempts to confront the nightmare adversary are partially successful in fending off danger. An example would be temporarily escaping a robber with a knife and trying to dial the phone for help.
  • Resolution: The nightmare enemy, opponent, or oppressor is vanquished and the threatening creatures are put in cages, slain, or held at bay with magic wands, or otherwise disarmed.

In some cases, children spontaneously resolve a recurring nightmare as the formerly distressing situations, which caused the nightmares, get worked out in the child’s real life.

The Four R’s That Spell Nightmare Relief

There are many potentially beneficial nightmare remedies that parents, family members, and even siblings can use to help a child break the spell of a disturbing nightmare and transform terror into creative breakthroughs. In order to soothe the lingering terror and banish the demons of the night, you must learn the Four R’s that spell nightmare relief for your children. They are

REASSURANCE, RESCRIPTING, REHEARSAL AND RESOLUTION.

Reassurance is the first and most important dimension of remedying children’s nightmares. This includes “welcoming the dream” with special emphasis on physical and emotional reassurance, which will calm your child’s anxiety and help them feel safe enough to give details about the nightmare and be open to further exploration.

Everyone has nightmares and no one has to bear the pain without help. Reassurance quells the post-nightmare jitters and allows you and your child an opportunity to discover both the creative possibilities and the source of what sparked the nightmare that may still be disturbing your child.

Rescripting means inviting and guiding your child to imagine changes in the outcome of their dream by reenacting or rewriting the plot. Even with young children, rescripting is most effective when it is a collaborative process of brainstorming together. The most well known form of rescripting is creating one or more new endings for a dream using art work, fantasy, drama, and writing.

Rescripting2, is like assertiveness training for the imagination. Ominous dream monsters, demons, and werewolves can be tricked and trapped, tamed and leashed, given time-outs, bossed around, and generally made less intimidating. With parental assistance, the child with nightmares can be taught to revolt and throw off the yoke of dream oppression by using magical means such as fairy dust, a wizard’s wand, Star Trek™ “Phasers,” special incantations and spells, or other handy tools of the imagination. Very often developing and rehearsing solutions to dream dilemmas carries over to increased confidence in facing waking conflicts.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of resolving nightmares is helping your child create their own repertoire of “Magical Tools” for dream assertiveness. These tools are limited only by your imagination and can be inspired by your child’s interests, current movies or television shows, your families cultural background, books or projects they are completing for school, and so on.

Even chronic nightmare sufferers, both adults and children, have found relief from relatively simple treatments and techniques. Vietnam veterans with persistent nightmares have been successfully treated with psychotherapy approaches that focus on resolving both the dreams and the unresolved traumas that caused the dreams to continue.

There are a few areas of caution that should be considered with respect to rescripting. The first is the use of violence in fantasy solutions to bad dreams. Killing the nightmare adversary may not be the optimal solution even in imaginary battles. Ann Sayre Wiseman, author of Nightmare Help warns that suggesting the murder or destruction of a dream foe may subtly encourage violent solutions to life problems and reinforce a tendency that children are already overexposed to through television, movies, news and violence in our society. On the other hand, encouraging creative, nonviolent, assertion in working out dream battles, may lead to improved and more constructive waking problem-solving skills.

The second caution is about the limits of creating new endings for nightmares. There is a misconception that using fantasy and magical tools to create a new dream ending assures that the underlying problem that stimulated the dream has been resolved. This may not be the case. While impressive results have been obtained using rescripting to reduce the frequency and intensity of nightmares, we must remember that nightmares, especially recurring ones, are messages–even warnings–from within that we are overwhelmed by a new situation, crisis, or chronic conflict such as a custody dispute or marital conflict. When there is a persistent problem in a child’s life, we may need to go beyond reassurance and rescripting to discover fundamental solutions to the life problems that set off the dream. This leads us to the two final R’s – rehearsal and resolution.

Rehearsal is practicing solutions to a nightmare’s various threats. Going a step beyond the new endings or magical tools used in rescripting a nightmare, rehearsal involves repeating the dream and its solutions in various forms until a sense of mastery or accomplishment has been achieved. This stage parallels the stage of psychotherapy called “working through,” where for adults, the insights they have gained need to be put to the test–at first in the relationship with their therapist and gradually by practicing new forms of relating with others and experiencing themselves in new ways.

Resolution is the final stage of alleviating the haunting spell of a nightmare. Discovering the source of the nightmare in your child’s life and working towards acknowledging and even correcting the life problem that has caused the nightmares are preliminary steps. Resolution can only come after a child feels secure enough (reassurance) to explore new solutions through art, writing, drama, and discussion (rescripting) and has practiced those solutions (rehearsal) with a parent or adult guide.

If a child continues to be curious about what is emerging from his or her exploration of a dream, they can be encouraged to honor their dream by connecting it to a person, situation, or feeling in their current life. By keeping in mind the major emotional issues affecting your child such, as the birth of a sibling or starting at a new school, parents can be alerted to the probable sources of a nightmare.

Through the process of exploring, brainstorming, and rehearsing metaphoric solutions to their children’s nightmares, parents begin to feel more secure in linking dream symbols to the current events and relationships in their child’s waking world. Nightmares emphasize to parents exactly what is most difficult for their child and open up possibilities for resolving important emotional challenges.

WHEN TO SEEK HELP FOR NIGHTMARES

Whereas moderate nightmare activity may be a potentially healthy sign that the unconscious mind is actively coping with stress and change, frequent nightmares indicate unresolved conflicts that are overwhelming your child. When children’s nightmares persist, when their content is consistently violent or disturbing, and when the upsetting conflicts in the dreams never seem to change or even achieve partial resolution, it may be time to seek further help from a mental health specialist or pediatrician. Especially if there is no obvious stress in your child’s life, repetitive nightmares could also be caused by a reaction to drugs or a physical condition, so it is advisable to consult a physician to rule out medical causes when nightmares do not appear to have a psychological origin.

Repetitive nightmares are often accompanied by other symptoms especially fears of going to sleep, anxieties or phobias. Increased nightmares can usually be linked to a recognizable stress in the child’s life such as absence or loss of a parent, suffering abuse or violence, marital or custody disputes in the family, social or academic difficulties at school, such as being teased or having an undiagnosed learning or attention problem.

Published by

Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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