Reading can help with night terrors

Helping children with nightmares

Nightmares are quite common in children aged 3 to 6 years. The coronavirus pandemic may have made the problem worse in many families. For all parents who are not sure what to do and how to help their child, Martin Forster, child psychologist at Kry, has a variety of tips.

Corona-related nightmares

The longer the corona crisis lasts, the greater its impact on our mental health. And children are also affected. The sweeping restrictions of global lockdowns have turned the lives of many children upside down. Just like adults, they experience emotions such as fear, worry, and sadness. This can lead to nightmares as a possible physical symptom.

In contrast to adults, however, younger children in particular do not yet have the language skills to express their feelings. This can lead to more frequent nightmares. The good news: parents and carers can do a lot to help.

Why do children have nightmares?

Nightmares are particularly common in children aged 3 to 6 years. Most children grow out of this phase at some point. Like dreams, nightmares occur during a phase of the sleep cycle that is characterized by rapid eye movements. The brain is particularly active during this phase, known as REM sleep. The first REM phase occurs around 90 minutes after you fall asleep, with the cycles becoming longer and longer as the night progresses.

"Like dreams, nightmares are often a way of processing the events and emotions we are confronted with in everyday life," explains Martin Forster, who works as a child psychologist at Kry. "If the child z. B. has been upset, traumatized or worried about something during the day, this can later manifest itself in a nightmare. "

Nightmare or night terrors?

Nightmares are often mistaken for night terrors. However, there are 2 completely different phenomena. Night terrors are common in children aged 3 to 8 years. It occurs in deep sleep, when the body is relaxed and we normally do not dream.

A child who is terrified at night can scream, roar, and thrash about in complete panic. However, it is not aware of this because it is sleeping. “It's a bit like sleepwalking. The child may seem disturbed, but will not remember what happened the next morning, ”says Forster.

“It is better not to wake up a child with acute nighttime fear, because otherwise it would be frightened when it wakes up,” recommends the expert. “If the child has got out of bed in a bout of night terrors, parents should simply carefully bring them back to bed. A nightmare, on the other hand, is something completely different, because the strong emotions inevitably lead the child to wake up, usually full of fear and panic. "

How should parents react to nightmares?

"If the child wakes up with a nightmare, parents should comfort them and make sure that they feel safe and secure," explains Forster. “You should reassure the child that dreams are not real - this is important. However, parents should not dwell on the content of the dream. It's about calming the child down. "

The expert explains: “If the child seems very frightened, there is nothing to prevent taking him to the parents' bed. If a child has recurring nightmares, staying for a few days may be the best solution. Some parents fear that this will quickly become a habit that is difficult to break. As soon as the child's sleep has normalized, however, it can usually sleep in its own room again without any problems. "

Are Nightmares Normal in Children?

"It's normal for children to have nightmares from time to time, and usually that's nothing to worry about," says Forster. “However, if the child regularly suffers from nightmares, parents should investigate the matter. Is there anything that stresses or worries the child? This is not always the case, but there may be problems that need to be addressed, perhaps at school or with friends. "

“If a child often wakes up at night because of their fear, their sleep is also disturbed, so that they feel tired the next day. Or it could be that after a while the child begins to fear going to sleep. Then bedtime suddenly becomes a problem, ”explains Forster.

What can trigger nightmares?

"Perhaps it is a one-off event, for example after the child has seen a horror film," says Forster. “Or maybe a friend did something that worried the child. Or maybe someone close to the child has been ill, or is worried that something bad could happen to a parent or sibling. "

“Some children are very sensitive and they may pick up family concerns. In most cases, the nightmares will go away on their own. Sometimes there is no particular reason. Some children just naturally dream more than others and are more likely to have nightmares. "

When should the child be presented to an expert?

"If a child has nightmares several times a week even after a month, parents should ask the doctor for a referral to the child psychologist," says Forster. "This can help parents identify more complex issues that play a role, such as issues within the family that scare the child."

What can parents do?

"So that younger children feel safe before they go to bed, parents should assure them that they are protected," says Forster. For example, if the child has a favorite teddy. B. say “Teddy is always there to protect you. He takes care of you and nothing bad can happen to you. "

If a child keeps waking up at night, parents can help them reprogram what is happening in their nightmare. To do this, parents should talk to the child about or record together what happened during the nightmare. Then ask the child to come up with a new ending.

“Parents could e.g. For example, ask to imagine what would happen if Superman suddenly flew in to catch the bad guys. In this way, parents help the child to invent a new story that will end well, ”says Forster. The more often parents talk about it together with the child or draw the plot, the more this new ending solidifies in their minds until the dream itself changes too. "

How can parents help deal with issues such as grief and death?

As a result of the Corona crisis, we are all thinking more about illness and death, and that does not leave the very youngest without a trace. Some children may even have lost a loved one because of Covid-19. “If your child has many questions about illness and death and is concerned about them, parents shouldn't ignore them. It is much healthier to address the child's fears, ”says Forster.

“Unfortunately, illness and death are part of our lives. By talking to the child about it, parents can help them cope better. If, for example, a relative has died, children should be included in the processes and rituals instead of hiding the whole thing, ”explains Forster. "Parents who support their child in dealing with difficult emotions such as grief and grief help them cope better with them."

Can Parents Save Children From Nightmares?

“Pictures can be powerful, and children react more intensely to something they see than to something they hear,” explains Forster. “So if the child is prone to nightmares, parents should make sure that they do not see any news or films with disturbing images. For example, when children see pictures of people in hospital because of the pandemic, it can increase their fear and concern that the people they love might get sick. Parents should try to protect their children from images and programs that could worry them. "