Help your preschooler deal with nightmares

By Amber Nasrulla on May, 30 2012
In several attempts to rescue her three-year-old daughter from bad dreams, Maggie Lamothe Fennessy has sprinkled magic dust in the bedroom (also known as glitter) and surrounded her little gal with 23 stuffed animals including a rabbit named Foofy. Maggie’s soothing nighttime ritual includes bathing Rebecca Lynne, massaging her with lotion, reading books and the occasional ocean wave CD. But the Toronto resident also has three-month-old twins to manage and exhaustion is winning out.

Turns out there may be another way to combat the nightmares that wake up children like Rebecca Lynne: re-script their dreams. Think of it as Inception for Preschoolers, (sorry mom, Leonardo DiCaprio not included) where you plant good ideas and images in youngsters’ minds to blanket their dreams. If your daughter awakes from a nightmare about a 14-eyed-monster calm her down first. And then “reframe the dream,” says Wendy Hall, a professor in the School of Nursing in the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of British Columbia. “Rethink and transform the dream so that it is a more positive and less threatening experience.”

Teach your child that she controls who and what gets to be in her dreams. Be specific. Talk about colours, textures, smells and sounds. “You can write things into the script – that they have a magic wand or a force field they put up in the dream,” Wendy says. “They can have things under their control that they introduce to stop whatever they don’t want to happen.” If your daughter dreams of spiders, Wendy says, then talk about a book like Charlotte’s Web where the spider is friendly and useful.

An anxious child is more likely to have anxiety-provoking dreams, says Penny Corkum, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Dalhousie University, so strive to reduce stress prior to going to sleep. Try guided visual imaging to help your little one imagine a tranquil environment. “You want your child to return to that relaxed place in their mind and to calm their central nervous system,” she says. The imaging technique along with an evening routine of no TV, relaxing activities as bedtime approaches and dimmed lights can be effective.

My four-year-old son has had nightmares since Halloween. So I asked him one night, what makes him happy. His response? Spiderman and Disneyland. As he snuggled up to a blue blankie he got on his first birthday, we talked about how he might dream about going on the Dumbo ride at Disneyland with Spidey. They’d drink pineapple floats, eat churros and watch the fireworks. The next morning, my son’s voice soared as he told me he’d been on the Peter Pan ride with Spiderman. The best part? I was there, too. The second morning he recalled going to the beach with Spiderman. The third morning he told me he’d dreamed of playing in my parents’ backyard. They live almost 5,000 kilometres away.

I’m thrilled my lad is sleeping through the night and waking up chirpy, but experts advise against asking about nightmares over breakfast unless your little one wants to talk about it. UBC’s Wendy Hall says, “You don’t want to make the dream such a focal point that the child starts doing it just to get attention.” Point taken.


You can talk about it at 2 a.m., though, if your son or daughter just sprinted to your bedroom fearing a vampire. (If he looks like Robert Pattinson, text me.) Avoid the lights – so the kids don’t wake up fully – then reassure them.

With practice, your children won’t need Mr. Sandman to bring them a dream; they’ll relax and drift off on their own.

What might be causing nightmares?

If dream re-scripting doesn’t help your child’s nightmares, sleep expert Dr. Shelly Weiss, says to look at other possible causes:
  • Anxiety or bullying at school or daycare.
  • Exposure to stresses such as marital conflict
  • Exposure to too much violence on TV. if an older sibling is telling them terrible stories. Talk to your child, your child’s daycare provider, teacher or pediatrician to further investigate.

Originally published in ParentsCanada, May/June 2012

Photograph by: iStockphoto.com/DoxaDigital  


By Amber Nasrulla| May, 30 2012

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