- 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
Nightmare Emergency: Chase or Attack
Description: Child reports that a wild animal, evil person, monster, or other threat pursued or attacked him or her. The villain may catch, harm, eat, or kill the dreaming victim.
Frequency:This nightmare is the most common bad dream among all people. Most children have it fairly often. The nightmare is a natural response to some life stress.
Usual meaning: "I feel threatened," either by some person in the environment or by an emotion with the dreamer. (Occasionally, this dream is a replay of an actual event.)
To make it easier to memorize these six steps, notice that the initial letter of each step spells the word dreams:
- Describe the dream
- Reflect the child's feeling
- Express reassurance
- Align allies/take action
- Make drawing or other creative product from dream
- Seek long term solution
- Describe the dream.
- Tell me about it.
- What happened?
- What happened next?
- hen what did you do?
- How did it end?
2. Reflect the child's feeling.
If your child has spontaneously mentioned emotions he or she felt during the dream, "reflect" them, that is, rephrase them so that the child feels heard and understood. For instance, "You feel scared"; "You were afraid it would hurt you"; "You felt all alone," and so forth. If the child hasn't mentioned his or her feelings, elicit them. Comment as appropriate.
- How did you feel?
- Did you feel different when…(there was some change in dream)?
- What was the very worst part? (Sometimes the answer to this is surprising; accept whatever it is.)
- You felt scared.
- You felt helpless.
- The worst part was…(you were all alone, no one came when you called for help, and so on)
3. Express reassurance.
- Lots and lots of children have that dream.
- It didn't happen in the waking world, but it's still scary.
- Most people don't know you can do something about bad dreams.
(Or, if based on actual traumatic event) We can't change what happened, but you can make your dream different.
4. Align allies; take action.
- If you ever have that dream again, you can change it.
- You don't have to let that person/animal/monster/thing hurt you.
- Dreams are like magic; you can make things happen in them.
- The next time that person/animal/monster/thing bothers you, turn around and face it.
- Fight back.
- You can have anyone you want in your dream.
- Who's strong?
- Who do you know who could help you in the dream? (If child can't think of anyone, suggest superheroes or heroines, Daddy, Mommy, a pet, religious figures, or other familiar and admired characters.)
- You can call for help. (If child did so in dream, praise the attempt and encourage having the help appear next time.)
- What if that happened in waking life? What could you do? (Call the police, call 911 or other emergency number, be picked up by a helicopter, find a weapon, get a friend to help, run to a stranger and tell them you need help, and so on.)
- Fight by yourself until help comes.
- What could you do by yourself? (Glue the monster's mouth shut, put it in a cage, get a magic weapon, and so on.)
- I wonder what would happen if you made friends with that person/animal/monster/thing. (Many children think this impossible at first; making friend is most useful after the child has had some experience confronting and conquering. If the person in the dream was an actual abuser or criminal, do not suggest the idea of making friends.)
- Try asking what the person/animal/monster/thing wants.
- Say, "Why are you chasing me?"
- Make a trade with it: you teach me something—a song, poem, dance, idea—and I won't make you go away.
If may seem impossible, but big, scary creatures can change shape in dreams, become friendly, or give you a gift.
- Try giving the person/animal/monster/thing a candy bar. Or play a game with it.
- Just remember, the next time you have a dream like that, don't run or try to hide: confront the person/animal/monster/thing and win. Or make friends with it.
An eight-year-old boy called upon "Ultraman" to help him banish his nightmares about a lion chasing him; a four-year-old girl called for her dog to help her during bad dreams; another four-year-old girl had her father move the stairs where a bad dream creature sat. A ten-year-old boy was aided by "Mighty Joe Young" in his nightmares; Superman rescued a five-year-old boy from a dream closet. A ten-year-old girl was saved from dream sharks by a strange man; a two-year-old girl was rescued by a fairy in white from a daddy-long legs who was chasing her. A five-year-old boy who was alarmed by a dream skeleton, a ghost, and Dracula trying to such his blood, was protected by Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Other children saved themselves or other children in their nightmares. One little girl glued the dream monster's mouth shut; another overfed the dream monster. A twelve-year-old girl jumped into the water and saved her friend from a dream shark; a boy of the same age saved a girl who was kidnapped by a dream ape. An eleven-year-old girl told the dream man who threatened her with a knife, "Don't you dare!"
Another girl of the same age who was frightened by a green monster in a "cold, dark, and very scary" cave, grabbed a stick and hit him on the head. The monster fainted. Yet another asked the monster why it was chasing her, and told him to leave her alone. He did..
Children have described to me still other methods of coping with their nightmares. A little girl from Asia told me that if someone is trying to kill you in a dream, you let them, then you take revenge. Another discovered that she could make a bad dream go away by squeezing her eyes very tightly during the dream.
Still another girl puts an "X" across a dream scene she dislikes. Some children simply "turn the channel," when they have a bad dream, as if it were a television program—and they get a better "show."
A boy who was disturbed by nightmares about a monster was asked by his therapist to close his eyes and picture the beast clearly. Then the therapist told to boy he was going to chase the monster away. He yelled at it and slapped the desk, until the boy joined him in monster chasing. A few sessions were sufficient to get rid of the boy's bad dream. Parents may find the same approach useful.
5. Make a drawing or creative product from the dream image.
(This method is useful for the next day or so after the nightmare).
- You had such a good idea last night (or whenever) about how to deal with that person/animal/monster/thing. Would you show me how that dream looked?
- Draw me a picture of the dream.
- I'd really like to see.
- Now show me how it would look when you use the better ending.
- You can change that picture or draw a new one.
- Why don't you make up a poem or story about that silly person/animal/monster/thing. (Assist as needed)
(Display dream drawings or other creative products.)
One little girl drew a picture of herself on a sandbank with an alligator chasing her from the water. To indicate that the alligator proceeded to eat her, she scribbled herself out on the drawing. A "redream" drawing might show the girl restored, with the alligator now in a cage. She chose to call the police to catch the beast. A ten-year-old boy drew himself wielding a magic sword to combat the wild animals that chased him and a friend in his nightmare. When a child has made a drawing of a dream, or succeeded in getting a "gift" from the villain that the child draws or makes, be sure to provide a place of honor for it.
6. Seek long-term solutions.
Exposure to the feared stimulus
Sometimes exposure to the feared object—in very small amounts—helps "innoculate" the child against it. This is the technique called desensitization when it is used by professionals in therapy. For instance, a little girl who had terrifying nightmares about policemen as villains was taken by her father to visit the police station. She met the captain, toured the barracks, and talked with several patrolmen. Although the experience wasn't fun for her, she later felt it helped her overcome her phobia. Likewise, a boy who had terrifying nightmares about fire engines following an actual fire, benefited from a trip to the fire station. It is very important not to overwhelm the child with the thing that evokes fear. Present the feared stimulus a little at a time. For some children, therapy might be required.
Read relevant stories
Read stories to the child that provide a model of success in dealing with a source of fear similar to the one in the child's nightmare.
Provide appropriate toys
Toys that suggest the nightmare content give the child an opportunity to act out fantasies. Playing out the dream can help a child practice more satisfactory conclusions.
The "anti-monster gun."
Parents contrive clever ways to help their children overcome nightmares. A five-year-old boy had occasional monster dreams that became troublesome. His mother bought him a special flashlight shaped like a gun. When the trigger was pulled a beam of light "shot" out. Proclaiming the flashlight an anti-monster gun, his mother suggested it might help solve his nightmares.
Soon the boy reported, "I know that monsters are all in your head, but I feel a lot safter since I got my anti-monster gun." I have seen cans of spray that are labeled "Nightmare preventer" in toy stores. Suggestion works in many forms. Giving children confidence in themselves is crucial to conquering nightmares.
Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim provided flashlights of all sizes and shapes—the larger the better—to the emotionally disturbed children at the University of Chicago school where he was principal. He recommended flashlights as highly desirable toys for all children because of their form (phallic) and their ability to penetrate the dark. Parents may also find that flashlights provide their children with a useful defense against dream villains.