WHAT ARE NIGHTMARES?
Anyone who has ever had a nightmare - which is surely all of us - will know, nightmares are intense and distressing dreams that can cause the dreamer to wake up feeling scared, anxious, or upset.
Nightmares tend to involve vivid and realistic scenarios that evoke strong, usually negative emotions. Nightmares can vary in content and themes but commonly include situations such as being chased, attacked, or trapped, encountering monsters or supernatural beings, reliving a traumatic event or experiencing a threat to yours or your loved ones' happiness or safety.
During a nightmare, the dreamer usually feels a sense of helplessness, fear or impending danger. They may experience a rapid heartbeat, sweating, or even physical sensations associated with the dream, such as pain or discomfort. Upon waking up, individuals often have difficulty falling back asleep, feel anxious or unsettled and are left with a clear and unpleasant memory of the dream.
Nightmares can be more prevalent during times of stress, anxiety, or emotional upheaval. Factors such as trauma, significant life changes or specific phobias can contribute to the occurrence of nightmares. In some cases, nightmares may be associated with underlying sleep disorders or medications that affect sleep patterns.
On this note, it's important to differentiate nightmares from night terrors, which are a distinct sleep disorder. Night terrors typically occur during deep non-REM sleep and are characterised by intense fear or terror, accompanied by physical symptoms like screaming, thrashing, or sleepwalking. Unlike nightmares, individuals experiencing night terrors often have no memory of the episode upon waking up.
While occasional nightmares are considered normal, persistent or recurrent nightmares that significantly disrupt sleep or cause distress may indicate a need for further evaluation or professional assistance.
WHY DO CHILDREN HAVE NIGHTMARES?
Whilst most children will experience the occasional nightmare, frequent or intense nightmares can disrupt sleep and cause anxiety.
There are several schools of thought as to why children seem to have nightmares more often than adults, and the prevalence of nightmares amongst children can vary at different ages.
Reasons your child may be having nightmares include:
Imagination and Emotional Development
Children have active imaginations and are still developing their emotional coping skills. Nightmares can be a manifestation of their fears, anxieties, or struggles in understanding and managing emotions. Common themes include monsters, animals, or situations that evoke fear
Stress and Anxiety
Children, like adults, can experience stress and anxiety related to various factors such as school, family dynamics, social interactions, or significant life changes. These emotional challenges can manifest in nightmares as the child's subconscious attempts to process and cope with these stressors
Children who have experienced traumatic events, such as accidents, natural disasters, or witnessing violence, may have nightmares as a result. Nightmares can be a way for their minds to process and make sense of the disturbing experiences they have been through
Certain sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, or sleepwalking, can increase the likelihood of nightmares. Disrupted sleep patterns and poor sleep quality can contribute to nightmares in children
HOW TO PREVENT CHILDREN HAVING NIGHTMARES?
Establish a calming bedtime routine
A calming bedtime routine can help your child feel relaxed and secure as they drift off to sleep. This could include a warm bath, reading a book together, or listening to soothing music. Whatever routine you establish, try to keep it consistent to help signal to your child that it's time to wind down and sleep
Reduce exposure to scary content
While it's impossible to completely shield your child from all scary content, reducing their exposure can help to reduce the frequency and intensity of nightmares. This may mean avoiding certain TV shows or movies, or limiting exposure to news stories that may be distressing for young children
Create a comfortable sleep environment
Ensure that your child's sleep environment is comfortable and conducive to sleep. This may mean adjusting the temperature, using blackout curtains to reduce light, or providing a favourite cuddly toy for comfort
Encourage relaxation techniques
Teaching your child relaxation techniques can help them feel more in control and calm in the face of anxiety-provoking thoughts. This could include deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation
Address underlying anxieties
Sometimes nightmares can be a symptom of underlying anxieties or stressors in your child's life. If you suspect this may be the case, try to identify any potential sources of stress and work with your child to develop coping strategies
Seek professional help if necessary
If your child's nightmares are frequent or severe, it may be worth seeking professional help. A child psychologist or therapist can help to identify any underlying issues and work with your child to develop strategies for managing anxiety and promoting better sleep