Nightmares: Dealing with a Child’s Worst Dreams

Nightmares - Dads Round Table

Photo Credit: George Hodan

My son wakes us from our slumber with a horrifying scream. The Wifey and I race from our bedroom and down the hall with Usain Bolt like speed. Little Dude is sitting up in his bed, shaking and sweating. His heart is beating so hard we can hear it and his sobs prevent him from being able to grab a full breath. He is scared, confused, and all we can do is hold him, reassure him, and wait for him to settle down and go back to sleep. Another night, another nightmare that plagues my son. I am helpless to stop them.

Nightmares are terrifying, especially for little kids. I have suffered with nightmares for a long time, dating back to when I was about my son’s age. My father also has vivid nightmares. Maybe it runs in the family? We do our best to comfort him after they have occurred but we are helpless to stop them from happening. It’s heart breaking knowing that on any night, we may hear that cry of fear, and there is nothing I can do for him but comfort him, and assure him that it was all just a bad dream. Oh how I wish I could stop them before they ever happened.  Feeling helpless as a parent is one of the most disheartening feelings. I hurt for my son as I know what it is he is going through. I spend time awake at night after he has gone back to sleep, ready to jump up is “Broken Face Trevor” invades his dreams again.

Thankfully I have learned a few things about helping him cope with these nightmares, and today I am here to share them with you. Keep in mind these are all based on my personal experience. Every child is different and what approach works for us may not work for you and your children. Experiment and find out what works best. If the nightmares or night terrors seem to intensify or become more frequent, then I recommend seeking the help of a health care professional to see what other options may be available.

Being Calm as a Parent

It is crucial that you stay calm when first reaching your child when they have awoken after a nightmare. No matter how tired or grumpy you may be. Showing signs of worry, anger, or excitement can add to the confusion your child is going through. They are already overstimulated as it is, and any signs they pick up from you that add to it will have a negative impact. Keeping a lowered, tempered voice, and soft touch, will help to reassure your child you are there, and they are safe.

It Was Only just a Dream

This is pretty self-explanatory. Understand that children can have a hard time understanding that dreams are mostly fiction. There are some instances where Little Dude has immediately known it was just a bad dream, and some cases where it takes weeks to convince him that none of it was real. What is important, no matter how long it takes, is just reaffirming that it was only a dream. Eventually, as children grow, they are more able to understand the difference between dream and reality, and know which dreams have no chance of happening in the real world. Realistic dreams, still must be recognized as just that: a dream. Assuring the child that nothing happened in real life and everything is now okay.

Getting the Facts Straight

In many cases with our son, it is difficult to get him to give us details of his nightmares. We all have those times where we dream something very vividly, but upon waking up, we are fuzzy on the details. With children, it can also be difficult for them to understand what we ask about their dreams. So careful structuring of questions, or questions that rule things out or in, can help get your child to open up about the nightmare. Getting the details from them can make it easier to ease their mind, and point out what made it just a dream, or why they do not need to be afraid.

Coming Back from the Dark Side

There have been many times that I have come to Little Dude’s side at night, only to realize that he wasn’t really completely awake yet. This is a scary moment for a parent. Sometimes he has called out to us, been sitting up in bed, but is still in the midst of his dream. Waking them up suddenly can have a very negative impact. A child is already scared enough because of the nightmare, and a sudden jolt to wake them up can cause more panic and confusion. While you want to get them out of their bad dream quickly, doing so must be done with ease. Using a gentle, soothing voice, and a soft touch or shake, to slowly wake them up.

Do you have any tips for combating and dealing with nightmares? We would love to hear them in the comments below! What is your experience when it comes to dealing with your child’s worst dreams?


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  1. Amanda B says:

    While i cant offer anything much for advice here- i can share something ive learned ALWAYS causes nightmares for me (and my mom, my son, even my husband)

    Getting too hot while sleeping. Not only does it cause bad dreams, but i will always fall right back into the same dream- right where it left off- or have the dream over again.

    It helps to keep the bedroom cooler than we think it should be for our kids. If my boys ever need a space heater on very cold days, i keep it on the lowest setting. Just enough to not feel cold- yet without feeling warm either. We use the radiator style oil heaters to keep the chill out of the bedrooms, as our home is heated with a wood stove that tends to leave cold spots in the house, and burns out while we sleep.

    I wish your boy some peace. Nightmares can be terrifying, even for adults!

    • That Johnny Dude says:

      I’ve never thought of that before! May be worth trying out. Thanks for the input! We always try keep it cool at night. We all sleep better that way lol!

      Another thing we have found is limiting TV and games before bed so the kids are not overstimulated as they fall asleep.

      Thanks for checking out the post!

  2. My kids get nightmares when they hold their pee. Once they calm down using many of the tips you presented, they go to the washroom and then the rest of the night is usually good from there.

    • That Johnny Dude says:

      We force ours to go before bed. But that’s for other problems we are afraid of having haha! Anything that can disrupt the sleep pattern, in my opinion, has the possibility to cause nightmares.

  3. Brad the Dad says:

    My oldest had night terrors all the time and there was nothing we could do but try and console him until he came out of it. He would cry out and we would rush to his bedroom only to find him half awake, sometimes not even sure he was awake at all. Sometimes it would just be crying while other times he would be trying to say something incoherent. It actually took us a few episodes to figure out he wasn’t awake because his eyes were opened and everything. Sometimes it would get so bad I would turn on the lights and try to wake him up thinking that was the only way to snap him out of it. Eventually he grew out of these and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they don’t return and/or start with our youngest.

    I like the cool room idea that Amanda suggests above as I find that nothing disrupts their sleep more than a hot room. And, as mentioned in the article, being gentle during these episodes is key. These situations can be very frustrating, but the reality is your kid is the one who is scared out of their mind and getting all worked up yourself isn’t going to help anything.

    Ah, parenthood.

    • That Johnny Dude says:

      Very true. Getting worked up or angry helps nobody in that situation. Cooler rooms are good for everyone when it comes to sleeping well. My dad, myself, and my son all have vivid nightmares. I do hope my son eventually grows out of them, but at least we have become better at how we handle them when they do occur.

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