Life Parenting

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Dear David Coleman: 'My daughter is five and has nightmares almost every night - we're exhausted'

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Nightmares are anxiety based
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My daughter (5) has screaming nightmares most nights. Sometimes she wakes herself up, but more often than not, she sleeps through the shouting. Her bad dreams seem to be about fighting with her six-year-old brother, as she calls out his name. They actually play great together and spend almost all their time together. We are constantly up with her and it's exhausting. It has been going on for about a year and a half now, probably since she started Montessori. She has now started school and loves it. How can we help stop these bad dreams?

David replies: It is interesting that the nightmares coincided with the start of Montessori. I presume your daughter had a relatively sound and settled sleep pattern until then? I assume you also have a warm and positive bedtime routine for her.

If that is the case, then it is quite likely that something about the experience of starting in the Montessori was stressful or anxiety provoking for your daughter. Typically, though, if daytime worries or anxieties cause disturbed sleep, we would expect the disruption to stop when the anxieties reduce.

So, once your daughter settled into Montessori, in theory, she should have settled back into her regular sound-sleeping pattern. The fact that she has continued to get nightmares suggests she is either still stressed about something or her body/brain has become accustomed to the disrupted sleep such that it is more like a habit.

The other possibility is that she is having night terrors, rather than nightmares. Night terrors are not especially related to daytime worries or anxieties. They are much more of a phase that some children go through. The fact that your daughter sleeps through her shouting is more akin to the experience of night terrors than nightmares.

Many children who have had a night terror may not even be aware they had one and don't recall it when they wake the following morning. It is awful for their parents, however, to witness their child in such distress, never mind the disruption to the parents' own sleep.

Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to prevent night terrors. Trying to reduce a child's overall stress might help, perhaps trying to establish predictable routines, with lots of down-time and time with parents.

Most children just grow out of their night terrors, leaving worn-out parents in their wake! The indicators of the night-time distress being because of nightmares are that most children wake up with a nightmare. They can also, usually, recall the nature of the dream and even the specific details of it.

Because nightmares are anxiety based, then anything that you can do to reduce your child's anxiety and increase their sense of security can help to deal with the nightmares.

Especially with younger children, like your daughter, a security 'object' such as a favourite teddy or maybe a 'blankie' or some of your old clothing might help her feel relaxed and safe in bed.

Being able to reach for this object, if she does wake, can also help her to soothe herself back to sleep.

Other things that can help include leaving a low night light on in your daughter's bedroom such that she avoids that claustrophobic feeling we can sometimes get in the dark.

Lots of parents (and children) swear by dreamcatchers, which are a crafted design that can hang above your child's bed. Dreamcatchers harness the magical thinking of young children, and their belief that the dreams will be 'caught' can sometimes provide the reassurance they need to allow the anxiety to fade.

Drawing a picture of the nightmare and then burning it or crumpling it up can also give children a sense of power that they are not mere helpless victims to these nightmares.

Children can also use their imagination to create a different ending to the nightmare, one that is more positive and, again, where the child shows their power to overcome the scary part of the dream.

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