How to handle your son’s nightmares
Last week, big brother was telling little brother ghost stories. Except, as my older son kept telling him, “they’re not stories, they’re actually really real”.
These ‘stories’ had come to my son second-hand from his grade 1 classmates’ wonderfully wild imaginations.
I was impressed with my son’s retelling (he has a flair for character development and narrative structure), but the close shaves with flesh-eating zombies and sinister shadows were a bit much for my just-turned-5-year-old.
By the time I realised how freaked out my youngest was, it was too late.
That night, my little one woke up screaming. Zombies had been eating his face.
I let him crawl into bed with me, soothing, shushing and stroking his cheek until he fell asleep.
I spent the rest of the night in my own nightmare, which involved elbows, doona stealing, and very little sleep.
The next morning, looking fairly zombie-like myself, I did some research.
Hopefully, these 11 tips will help us all survive any future nighttime apocalypses:
- Go to your son as soon as you can. Don’t wait it out or ignore him. He’ll just feel abandoned and more afraid.
- If he’s fled to your bed, escort him back to his own room. Yes, it’s easier to let him sleep with you, but unless you want to look like an extra from The Walking Dead, it’s probably not a habit you want him to get into.
- Once he’s back in his own room, cuddle, reassure and stay with him until he’s calmed down.
- If he’s really freaked out, soothe him with a relaxing activity: read a book together or listen to a guided meditation (try the free Smiling Mind app for short, age-appropriate meditations).
- Let him talk to you about his nightmare, but don’t push him to talk if he doesn’t want to. And don’t let the talk linger once your son has been reassured.
- Encourage him to come up with alternate endings for the nightmare that are happy or funny. However, appreciate that your son’s feelings are genuine. Be careful not to dismiss his fears with throwaway comments (“trolls don’t exist”, “broccoli won’t eat you…”)
- Continue talking the following day if he wants to, just not too close to bedtime. Make sure he knows that nightmares are normal and that everyone has them.
- Talk about how he felt while he was having the nightmare, rather than focusing on what happened. This will help you gain some insight into what caused the bad dream.
- If your son’s associating the dark with scariness, or try putting a nightlight in his room. You could even play some games in the dark with a torch.
- Avoid watching TV in the hour before bedtime. Try a warm bath and a few light, funny books to help him calm down and relax.
- If he’s having regular or recurring nightmares, consider whether there’s anything going on that he might be anxious about – have there been changes at home or school? Does he have a nightmare every Wednesday night (before soccer training the next day)?
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