- In This Feature
- Guide to Nightmares
- Night Terrors
- Night Terrors: Causes
- Night Terrors: Treatment
- First Aid for Nightmares
- Nightmares: More Tips
- Nightmares: Causes
- Nightmare Emergency: Chase or Attack
- Nightmare Emergency: Falling
- Nightmare Emergency: Injury or Death
- Nightmare Emergency: Kidnapped
- Nightmare Emergency: Being Lost
- Nightmare Emergency: House on Fire
- Nightmare Emergency: Vehicle Out of Control
Nightmares: More Tips
4. Teach appropriate skills and provide experiences in waking life to cope with dream disasters.
Anxieties in children's dreams sometimes stem from lack of knowledge or from misconceptions. Boys and girls who are facing hospitalization, for instance, find the unknown aspects of the situation extremely frightening; instructing them about what to expect reduces anxiety.
Similarly, children who are inordinately afraid of fires or policemen, etc..., can profit from factual information and positive experiences, such as visiting a fire station or police station to meet people and see equipment. This will help dispel distorted ideas.
One researcher attempted to eliminate nightmares in a group of 25 normal children who were suffering terror dreams following a traumatic life experience. For instance, a child who was awakened in the middle of the night by fire alarms and bells when the house across the street from his own caught on fire was troubled thereafter with terror dreams about fire engines.
Some of these children were asked to choose something they would prefer to dream about, such as visiting children in different lands; others were told that their terror dream was foolish and to tell themselves they would sleep peacefully all night; still others were taken to do things relevant to their terror dreams. The child who dreamed of frightening fire engines, for example, was taken to visit a fire engine station, where he talked with the firemen about their job and the engine.
All the children were eventually able to eliminate their terror dreams, but those who engaged in relevant activity in waking life were, as a group, quicker; their terror dreams disappeared on the average, within two months. Those children who suggested pleasant substitute dreams to themselves averaged three months before the terror dream vanished, and those who were given suggestions to ignore the terror dream averaged five months before it disappeared. Waking activity can change your child's dreams. Engage in activities relevant to the dream change that you wish to produce.
5. Encourage pleasant happenings and dream discoveries
Show your child the pleasures that can be derived from his or her dreams by using them as a creative resource. Promote happy dreams. Explore the fascinating methods of creative expression based on dreams.
One of my favorite techniques of dream work with children is to ask them to draw what I call a "redream." This is what I tell a group of children who have been describing their worst nightmares:
- Close your eyes.
- Think about your dream.
- Pretend that you can see your dream.
- Picture it exactly the way it happened. Can you see it? (Child usually nods yes; if not, give reminders of the dream content from earlier discussion.)
- Okay. Now, in your imagination, think of something else that could happen, something good that would change the dream.
- Make the dream better. Turn it into a good dream.
Chance it. Maybe there is some superhero who comes to help you. Or maybe a helicopter flies in to rescue you. Perhaps you find a magic weapon. Maybe you make friends with the thing that frightened you. Do anything you want to make the dream the way that you want it to be.
- Picture very clearly how the dream is different this time. See the details, the colors, the shapes, the sounds, maybe even smells and tastes.
- Now open your eyes and draw a picture of the new dream.
Children usually love this fantasy, and the suggestions produce much giggling. As they draw their redreams, I go around speaking quietly to individual children. Many of them have already devised means to transform the dream; others need a few suggestions. Always allow the child final choice on how to grapple with the dream. I ask them to tell me about the picture and identify parts that are unclear.
Boys and girls redream their nightmares in a variety of ways. A seven-year-old girl, for instance, transformed the park with dead grass and a monster chasing her into a place filled with flowers. Another seven-year old girl had the sharks who had been killing people turn tail and swim away. A nine-year-old girl had a mermaid save her from the devil/witch who held her captive underground. A ten-year-old boy protected himself and a friend from wild animals with a magic sword. A twelve-year-old girl had a man from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals take away the cats who were biting her. Another twelve-year-old girl, had the horse kick the mean teacher who was cutting off its head.
Simply imagining that a nightmare comes off differently and drawing it, defuses the child's anxiety. The child begins to realize that other options are available. An art therapist who works with battered children tells me that she uses similar techniques to evoke the dreamer's resources. She encourages the child to see the dream situation from a different viewpoint, such as what a bird might see; she helps the child find other ways to solve the dream problem; she picks out any benign image in the dream and has the child make it more powerful. You may find that such exercises help your child wrangle with, and dispense with, a specific nightmare.
6. Provide reassuring touch
Most children find gentle physical touch reassuring—stroking the back, smoothing the forehead and hair, light massage. Soothe the child in whatever way works best for him or her.
Some sleep experts state that after a nightmare it is important to break up any ongoing brain patterns before returning to sleep. Otherwise, they say, the same bad dream could continue. Touching the child's face and body helps accomplish this. Adults can rub the child's arms, etc. Getting up, going to the bathroom, washing the face, getting a drink of water—all these are useful in shifting ongoing brain patterns.
Avoid tranquilizers unless absolutely necessary. As well as posing other dangers, they reinforce the idea that assistance must come from the outside; the child feels incompetent.
7. Provide reassuring objects such as favorite toys, books, music, etc.
Some children find it consoles them to hold their favorite stuffed animal or doll. The softness and familiarity bring comfort. An eleven-year-old girl said that she feels better holding her pet kitten after a bad dream. She also likes to read a "simple" book, something that is easy for her, like "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." (Not all children would find this book heartening.) Other children like to put on soft music to lull themself back to sleep.