The following information will help both children and adults deal with nightmares and put a stop to the bad dreams.

What to do if your child is having a nightmare

If you come upon your child in the middle of a nightmare, stay calm. Hold them close and talk in a soft, soothing voice. Offer comfort and reassurance. You can wake them if you’d like, or simply let it pass and hope they don’t remember it. Whenever possible lay with them or stay close by until they go back to sleep. Handling these instances in a calm and consistent manner may help bring about an end to them.

Stopping nightmares through imagery rehearsal therapy

This is a simple exercise you can do to diminish the number of nightmares that you or your child will have. First, you begin by imagining a dream that you would like to have. This dream doesn’t have to be filled with blue sky, sunshine or puppies. It can be any scenario you want to imagine, whether boring, action packed, or just plain odd – so long as it doesn’t revolve around the content of your nightmares. Once you have the scenario, either write it down or talk it over with your child. Then before you go to sleep that night, take a few minutes to think about that dream.

This technique works best when a child’s nightmares are random and do not revolve around a specific thing or experience, and is the technique we would suggest everyone try FIRST.

When our daughter was seven, she began having nightmares. It was a particularly bad time for all of us, until she told me that a bright bird came to her in her imagination and agreed to eat all her bad dreams. Each night she saw the bird in her mind before going to sleep, and the nightmares stopped.”  – Janis, mother of Ellie, age nine (Elium & Elium, 1994, p. 197)

Dealing with nightmares by confronting your dreams

When nightmares revolve around a specific subject or are the result of a particular trauma, sometimes the most effective way to deal with nightmares is to confront them head on. Work with them, not against them. If you or your child can remember some of the specifics of the nightmare (such as reliving a car crash or the sensation of falling), then before bed, engage in a little story time session. Follow the plot of the fear, and then create yourselves a happy ending to the story. Because our thoughts directly before bedtime often play out in our sleep, performing this task can make it so that when your child relives the nightmare in their sleep, it resolves itself automatically and that is the end of the nightmare.

For example, if a child endured a horrible car crash or witnessed a violent event such as a shooting, tell a story before bed about a little boy who experiences the same thing. Only as you tell this story, quickly breeze through the trauma and build a more elaborate story around a positive ending afterward. You might twist the story so that a superhero flies in to save the day just before something horrible is to take place, and then create an elaborate narrative of how the characters live happily ever after. Or for the car accident victim, you might quickly breeze through the accident itself and then create an elaborate, feel good narrative around all the doctors and helpers who rush in to offer aid. For the following sensation, spend a few minutes talking about feathers or stuffed animals or whatever other soft things you’d like to imagine landing on.

The problem with nightmares is that as a person’s brain is running through its memories and trying to consolidate information, it gets stuck on the anxiety in question. Rather than trying to fight the anxiety, you want to help your brain work through it. It may take many sessions of this to truly extinguish the nightmare, so don’t give up after one night.

Don’t dwell on the nightmares

Dwelling on your nightmares or thinking about them during the day can increase the likelihood they’ll continue. So if you find you’re doing this, tell yourself: “I’m not going to worry about it now, if it happens it happens, there’s no use thinking about them during the day.”

Monitor your child’s sleep

Place a tape recorder near the head of their bed or sneak in one night after they’ve fallen asleep to monitor their sleeping for an hour or two. Pay attention to their breathing. If you notice shallow breaths, extreme snoring, or pauses in breathing, their nightmares could be caused by a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea.