Nightmares and What to Do about Them
First Aid for Nightmares
In an emergency, turn to the section dealing with the nightmare in question (or its nearest equivalent). Read the sections on Probable Causes and Long Term Treatment at leisure, and implement those that seem right for you.
Regardless of what type of nightmare your child had, keep in mind the following principle: you can empower your child to become active rather than passive in the dream; you can help you child change the dream.
- Teach your child to confront and conquer danger in dreams. to fight rather than run or hide; to befriend rather than brutalize.
- Teach your child to call on “dream friends” for help when needed during the dream. Convey the concept that the child can do something about the terrifying situation.
- Share stories that provide a model for successful confrontation.
Boys and girls who are familiar with literature in which children triumph over villains have a model to use for their own dream enemies. Max, in Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” tames the beasts “by the magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes.” By being more ferocious than the wild things (who are dream characters), Max is made king over them. Children who conquer their dream fears in this way feel equally powerful.
- Teach appropriate skills and provide experiences in waking life to cope with dream disasters.
- Encourage pleasant happenings and dream discoveries
- 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.
Of course, running or hiding that is successful in eluding the frightening dream situation is psychologically better for the child than trying to escape unsuccessfully and succumbing to the threat. When your child manages to cope with dream dangers—even if it involves fleeing—praise him or her. Then suggest more active coping techniques, as discussed in the sections on specific nightmares.
Befriending the threatening dream figure is sometimes possible. Ask your child, “Could you make friends with the animal/person/thing that frightened you in the dream? Find out what the creature/person/thing wants.” Many children feel this is an overwhelming task, however, and it is most effectively used after the child has had some practice in confronting and conquering dream enemies. Whenever it is possible to befriend a villainous dream character, children derive enormous satisfaction.
A child who attacks other dream characters without provocation is behaving as inappropriately as the one who collapses under attack. Suggest to such a child that in future dreams he or she befriend the other dream characters, cooperate on some project, or have an adventure together.
Many times children have taught me creative ways they devised for coping with bad dreams, in addition to fighting back. When one little girl, for example, finds herself inside a nightmare, she marks a big “X” across what is happening, and the dream scene changes. A little boy explained to me that when something bad is going on in his dream he simply “changes the channel.”
By drawing on inner resources in these and other ways, children learn an essential lesson: what they do can make a difference in their lives. They cease being passive victims. They develop self-reliance.
Children, as well as adults, feel most helpless when it seems as though nothing can be done to remedy a dreadful situation. Psychologists say it is possible to adopt hopelessness as an attitude toward life; they call it “learned helplessness.” Children who feel a situation is hopeless get depressed. A recent tragic case is the child who committed suicide because of low grades on his report card. Children may perceive as unbearable events that can, in fact, be improved or are not nearly so important as they think.
A leading expert in the area of helplessness, Martin Seligman, put his knowledge to work when his own small daughter began to be troubled by nightmares. Dr. Seligman told me that he taught her, “Whenever you find yourself in trouble in dreams, call for Apollo [the family dog].” The girl was well advised; hopefully she was then able to dispel her nightmares herself.
Other children call for their mother or father to help during a bad dream; one little girl recites a protective prayer and visualizes her spiritual leader. Religious figures, superheroes and heroines, parents, friends, and pets—all can deliver the child from danger in a dream. Tell your children to call for help in nightmares, but to fight by themselves until help arrives.
When the Queen of Hearts shouts, “Off with her head!” to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s classic, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the little girl fights back. “Who cares for you?” she says returning to her full size. “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” At this, the pestering people of Alice’s dreams turn back into a pack of cards that fly toward her as the dream ends. I’ve seen the same technique work when a dreamer says to a threatening dream creature, “You’re just a dream!”
Alice confronts the troublemaking Red Queen in Carroll’s sequel “Though the Looking-Glass.” When Alice turns on her, the Red Queen dwindles to the size of a doll; the child catches and shakes her. As the Queen transforms into the child’s kitten, Alice awakens victorious from the dream story.
Such tales, and others with similar themes (the Harry Potter books contain many parallels with triumphant child heroes), can be shared with children to help them conceive the notion that it is possible to take action against the witches and vampires, beasts and monsters, that trouble their dreams. You can abbreviate and paraphrase stories that may be too advanced for, or unappealing to, a small child, taking care to leave in the important step, what I call “confront and conquer danger in your dreams.”
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.
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:
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