It's late at night and you're sleeping. Suddenly, you awaken to the sound of tiny feet scurrying your way. The next thing you know, your child is in bed with you, asking to please sleep with you tonight. This is a familiar scene for many parents and, indeed, nightmares are incredibly common among children.
In the wee hours of the morning, you may not be too enthused about unpacking your tyke's dream, but by chatting with your child about their nightmares (preferably in the morning, when you're both well-rested), you may gain keen insight about what's going on in your child's mind. The more kids talk about their fears in waking life, the less they may have to deal with their anxieties in their dreams.
Start by questioning your child in a nonjudgmental way. Ask how about what happened in the dream and about what's happening in real life as well. Often times, nightmares occur if the family is going through a big upheaval or if there's turbulence in the classroom. Getting the scoop about what's going on at school could clue you in to whether the dreams are stemming from a specific conflict.
Chase dreams are common among both children and adults, and are believed to represent something that we're trying to escape in real life. Other dreams, such as losing teeth, tornadoes or falling, reflect feeling out of control. And scary creatures, such as monsters, clowns or wild animals, could very well represent people or situations in your child's life. (MySign's dream dictionary can point you to some widely accepted interpretations for common dreams.) To make sense of this imagery, find out how the events of the nightmare made your child feel. By pinpointing whether the "Big Bad" in your child's dream made them frustrated or embarrassed, versus threatened or downright scared, you might be able to draw parallels between waking life events.
Or the nightmare may stem from something as simple as seeing unsettling images on television or overhearing something benign that they processed in a frightening way. Dreams are incredibly personal, and these symbols may mean something different to each child. Sure, a snake can signify betrayal, but if you speak further with your child, you may just discover that they saw one on a recent nature field trip.
Look for aspects of the nightmare that might offer some reassurance. For example, if your child got away from or conquered a dream nemesis, emphasize feeling good about handling such a scary situation all by him or herself. You could also equip your youngster with a special stuffed animal or toy that will act as a symbolic hero. And, of course, remind your children that you're going to protect them, no matter what. Ultimately, you want to let kids know they're capable of winning in their nightmares.