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Bad dreams and Nightmares

My 7 year old lately has been waking screaming from nightmares. They generally involve cats which has us totally perplexed as she adores her kitty. There are also people/things trying to hurt her. It's rather distressing waking to blood curdeling screams in the middle of the night and her fear takes a while to subside. Is there anything we can do to help calm her and prevent the bad dreams?
BF Guru

Dear B,
I'm so sorry to hear that your daughter is having blood-curdling dreams. We've all had nightmares and know how distressing they are.

Although always upsetting for both kids and parents, nightmares are not uncommon among young children and are usually nothing to worry about. Up to 10% of 7 and 8 year olds are thought to have nightmares once a week. A child having nightmares is feeling afraid of whatever he or she is coping with in life. The best response is warm reassurance: give her empathy for the bad dream, help her feel safe enough to go back to sleep, and during the day make sure that her waking life is not demanding too much of her emotionally.

Recurring nightmares, however -- meaning the same theme over and over -- are a sign that something may be amiss. Nightmares are a child's way of trying to work out something emotional that they can't work through consciously; recurring nightmares are your child's way of telling you that she is stuck trying to resolve something difficult.

Some ideas that might help:

1. Luckily, you can often figure out what is troubling your child, simply by listening to her bad dreams. If you can tell what's troubling your her, don't hesitate to interpret her fear and reassure her: "It must have been very scary to dream that Mommy disappeared. But you know that Mommy ALWAYS comes back, right?" or "You've dreamed twice now that Mr. Jones' dog got loose and chased you. I know he always barks in that terrifying way when we pass their house. But he's just guarding his house, he wouldn't actually get out and hurt us, and you never walk over there without a grownup. We will always keep you safe."

2. If you can't figure out from the dream what is upsetting your daughter, consider whether anything traumatic has happened in the past month. A separation or death, the birth of a new baby, a new school or neighborhood? Often a big change -- even one that we might consider a happy change, like her long-absent father writing her a nice letter -- can cause nightmares for a bit while the child adjusts. Even something so simple as witnessing parents arguing, or a parent who goes on frequent trips, can scare kids enough to cause nightmares. Research also shows that kids who are punished with physical discipline or who are frequently yelled at are more likely to have frequent nightmares.

3. Limit media intake. Research shows that kids who watch TV have more nightmares than kids who don't. All kids are different, and some are extra sensitive to scary images. Even Disney movies are too scary for some seven year olds.

4. Sometimes when kids can't handle feelings that scare them, those feelings get pushed away and return at night. Often, nightmares in which something scary is hurting a child are actually expressing the child's own anger at others. Your daughter may be frightened of her own anger, and projecting it out onto the mean things in her dreams. Make sure she knows that everyone gets angry sometimes, even so angry that we feel we could hurt someone, and that you will always help her to manage her anger so that everyone stays safe.

5. Kids who are generally more anxious are more likely to have bad dreams. If you think this is true of your child, do everything you can to provide her a secure home base and family. Teach her relaxation skills and positive thinking skills to reduce her anxiety level. Don't push her to become more independent or to take on challenges beyond her developmental level until she shows she is ready.

6. Empower her. Let her tell you what happens and empathize "No wonder you were scared!" Then ask: "I wonder if you could have done something to stop it? Did you know that sometimes you can change what happens in a dream by telling the scary thing to go away? Or that you can call for help, and help will always come? For instance, I (Mom or Dad) will always come if you call me in a dream. And you can also wake yourself up if the dream is scary."

7. Help your daughter to rewrite the script of her dreams. Ask her to come up with alternate endings. If she has a hard time beginning, jump in to help her as you brainstorm together:

"I think what happens next in the dream should be that you call me and I appear and fight off the scary thing and then you and I go exploring and find a treasure" or

"I think what happens next in the dream should be that you tell that scary thing not to be rude, or you will tell its mommy, and then send it home to dinner!" or

"I think that next time when you feel yourself falling, you will start floating, and then flying, and swooping about having a lovely time" or

"I think that what happens next is that when the dragon roars at you, you roar right back and tame it, and then you have a pet dragon to be your friend." or

"What do you think should happen next?"

Be light-hearted about it, but give her a sense that she is in fact the architect of the dreams, and she may begin to work through whatever is causing her to have them. Encourage creative solutions that transform the situation, or even the scary dream monster. Be aware, however, that it is not a good idea to encourage violence on the part of your child, even toward the dream ogres. Once kids see violence as a viable option, they may well begin to use it in their waking life.

8. Ask your daughter to draw her dream, with the new, rewritten ending. This will help reprogram her unconscious to see the situation in a new way. An alternate way to do this is to actually act out the dream with her, letting her take the lead in changing the ending so that she triumphs. It may seem artificial, but acting out dreams has enormous power. If you need more characters, let her cast other family members in the various roles.

9. During the night when your daughter awakens upset, hold her and tell her you will protect her from anything that is scaring her. Find out what it was (she may not feel ready to tell you the whole dream) and then say to the scary thing "GO AWAY DREAM CATS! This is _____"s bedroom, and you are not allowed here. GET OUT!" Encourage your daughter to bellow this with you. She will feel empowered and will have an easier time going back to sleep.

9. Make sure that your home is calm, especially at bedtime. Make sure that she gets plenty of snuggle time with parents. Make sure she gets a chance to chat with you about the best thing that happened that day, as well as the worst things. Listen deeply, empathize, and help her to figure out how to solve her problems (rather than solving them for her.)

10. Most likely, these suggestions will resolve your daughter's bad dreams. However, remember that nightmares are about whatever she is struggling with, and until those issues are resolved in real life, they will continue to haunt her dreams. If all the suggestions above don't reduce or eliminate her nightmares, then her unconscious is sending you a message that she needs more help, and it is time to consult with a professional.

I wish you and your daughter sweet dreams.
Dr. Laura

Thanks so much! We have been doing some of that and *think* we may be on to something though we aren't sure why there are cats in her dreams lol. She adores cats especially hers like I said, but there seems to be a mean cat or a magical cat or even once a "witch who's eyes had cats in them when she looked at you like THIS" (and she would open her eyes real wide and scowl). We found out the next week after grandma went home that she had been playing "witch" with my adoptive sister who is 6 mos younger than her and on the same evening grandma had made her feel very guilty over not wanting to pray at night (we aren't religious and grandma does not like that fact). We are hoping to limit the negativity revolving around religion and have told grandma that she is not to discuss her faith with her anymore. That seems to help a little, but every now and then...sigh. LOL Actually it was her age that I started having recurring nightmares about my mother turning into a monster...thankfully that hasn't happened to her yet, LOL!

B-

Seems like maybe she was very angry at Grandma and felt guilty about it. Very common in kids, that when they're angry at someone they love they project that anger out onto a monster or something. So if a little girl loves her cat, and then dreams that it becomes a monster, I wonder if she's partly expressing her fear that someone she loves could act like monster? that's a pretty shocking thing to kids....

Dr. Laura

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Elizabeth commented on 11-Apr-2012 10:12 AM
My little sister has been having too many nightmares at night that she can't even sleep. she wakes up in the middle of the night and goes gorge bathroom and doesn't go, but doesn't know why she woke up. she dreams of some guys going to get house and kidnapping
her and the guy has a black mask that she can't see who that guy is. she had also yelled out at night the number 13. she talks a lot always when she has these nightmares. she often has headaches in the day and she used to be a very happy girl and full of energy.
now, she just sits there and doesn't want to do anything thru out the day and she feels sad. Is there anything we can do to help her?

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