Q Our son Matthew is seven years old and has begun to have scary nightmares. He has dreams about being kidnapped and hidden in a closet where no one can find him. How common are nightmares in kids? What causes kids to have nightmares and what can parents do to reduce or eliminate night-time fears?
A Researchers have found that nightmares are most common in children ages 6-10. Preschool children tend to worry about monsters under the bed while older kids tend to dream about being kidnapped or shot or bad things happening to their parents. A study by Dutch researchers found that nearly 70% of kids said their nightmares were about something they saw on television. Other causes include being stressed or overly tired. When children are anxious or exhausted their chances of having nightmares increase. Medical conditions such as sleep apnea and certain medications can increase the chance of nightmares. Additional causes include issues at school such as bullying or issues at home such as abuse, neglect or some other type of domestic trauma.
Ways parents can help reduce or eliminate a child’s nightmares:
- Monitor what your child watches on TV and make certain it is age-appropriate. Be cautious about watching the news with your child as feature stories often contain sensitive subject matter that can be very disturbing.
- Make sure your child is getting enough rest and sleep. Have your child do something restful or quiet after an energetic sports activity. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends 10-13 hours of sleep with a bedtime of 7:15-8:30 p.m. for children ages 3-5; children ages 6-13 need 9-11 hours of sleep with a bedtime of 7:15-9:00 pm. Children also need a consistent bedtime routine. Eliminate screen time at least two hours before bedtime as the blue light from screens may interfere with the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin.
- Identify any stress at school or home and discuss ways to reduce the stress with your child. Talk with your child’s teachers to identify any stressors at school. Help your child practice relaxation techniques. Practice circle breathing (breathing in with one nostril and out the other) or practice four-count deep breathing.
- When your child shares about a nightmare, be understanding. Empathize with your child that the nightmare “must have been scary, but it isn’t real.”
- Have fun with your child by rewriting the nightmare. Talk about smart or silly ways the nightmare could be rewritten to eliminate the scare factor.
For parents, it’s important to remember that what goes on during the daytime will affect a child at night.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist