How to handle kids' nightmares

Sleep expert Joseph De Koninck answers all your questions about nightmares and night terrors.

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Do your kids suffer from scary dreams? Joseph De Koninck, professor emeritus of the School of Psychology and director of the Sleep Laboratory at the University of Ottawa, sheds some light on night terrors and nightmares.

What’s the difference between night terrors and nightmares?

“Night terrors occur at the beginning of the night, during deep sleep, and are characterized by a very sudden awakening — as if you were being choked or crushed — with yelling and crying out,” explains De Koninck. Typically, a night terror has no mental content as the brain has not yet gone into a dream state. Children may flail around and look wide-eyed, but don’t register you being there and often don’t remember the occurrence. Nightmares occur later in the night, during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, and they are simply dreams that turn out to be negative. There is usually a story associated, often evolving from innocent to frightening, that will cause your child to wake up and feel afraid. Children will o ften remember these dreams the next day.

How common are nightmares among children?

The American Psychiatric Association says that 10 to 50 percent of children, ages three to five, will experience nightmares at least once. De Koninck says five to 10 percent of children have them frequently — more than once a week.

What causes them?

During REM sleep, the amygdala (a part of the brain associated with expression of emotion) is not well controlled and expresses strong emotions that can be violent and scary. De Koninck says that they have discovered a genetic component: Typically, if children have nightmares, their parents had them, too.

What should parents do after a bad dream?

The key is to comfort: Hold your child gently (never shake him awake) and let him know it was just a dream. Never dismiss his fear, says De Koninck, because what he has experienced is quite real for him. Most kids will outgrow bad dreams, and parents don’t need to intervene unless the dreams linger on past age 10, or cause great anxiety . “If the child doesn’t want to go to bed because he’s afraid of having nightmares, you need to do something. The problem can go into adulthood and create anxiety issues,” says De Koninck. “Also, the child won’t get enough sleep, which is important for growth and the brain.” It’s important to shield children prone to bad dreams from scary experiences — especially close to bedtime.

Can you prevent nightmares? 

According to De Koninck, the best strategy is to get your child to literally rewrite her dream. Have her write down her nightmare, then write a story that ends well. If she was being chased by a bear, have her story end by facing the bear, and instead, it’s a sweet kit cat. Young children can use drawings or tell you about their nightmare, and you then ask how they’d change it to be fun. Ask your child to rehearse the new story and think about it as they go to bed. “It works almost miraculously,” says De Koninck. “Within a week, the nightmares
usually disappear.”

A version of this article appeared in our February 2013 issue with the headline “Tackle night terrors,” p. 56.

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