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Helping Your Kids With Nightmares: Planting Good Thoughts

nightmare - monster under bedI’m not sure who has it worse during nightmares, the kid or the parent. Both are awake and tired. One is out of bed, cold and can’t seem to remember much. The other is in their bed, scared and can’t remember much, either.

Nightmares are common to kids. According to the Mayo Clinic Article, they occur during the REM period of sleep and are pretty much like all our other dreams, except they tend to have some sort of disturbing element that continues to get worse throughout the dream.

Adults typically can figure out pretty quickly that the nightmare isn’t real, even if it seems real. We calm down and go back to sleep. But our kids tend to have more nightmares and continue to feel scared long after they wake up.

My girls remember a sermon in which the pastor told them not to think about the green, stuffed monkey he was holding. He said he would give us $100 if we wouldn’t think of the green monkey. It was a good illustration, except one of my daughters thought she should get paid. “Because,” she said, “I’m not thinking about the green monkey”. Once we get a thought in our minds, it is hard to get it out. This is true for good thoughts and for scary thoughts.

The problem with nightmares is that kids, at times, feel so scared that they either don’t want to go to bed in the first place, or they feel a lot of anxiety with sleep. If nightmares reach a point of being very regular and begin to become disruptive sleep, then it may be time to talk to your doctor just to make sure there aren’t other things going on. However, for most of us parents, there are some pretty basic things we can focus on to help our kids with their nightmares, and hopefully as a result, get a better night’s sleep ourselves.

First, establish a nighttime routine that supports good sleep.

  1. Don’t eat right before bed. The digestion process may disturb sleep and increase nightmares.
  2. Eliminate TV and video games at least an hour before going to bed – and yes, this is good for you, too (Read the article).  While studies aren’t yet complete, the light emitted from screens, including your smartphone, can make it harder to fall asleep. The theory is that screens emit light that our bodies interpret as daylight, making it harder to sleep.
  3. Take time to talk about the day and resolve any tension or misunderstanding from the day. You aren’t dredging up mistakes from the day, but if you can, talk about that ugly moment in a positive light. For example, you can affirm by saying, “Even though we had that time today in which you said a bunch of mean things to your brother, you figured things out, did things to calm down and were kind to him tonight when you let him go first.” This sort of conversation brings some closure to some things which they may still feel some fear about.
  4. Have a short, predictable routine. This routine should be something you can reasonably do at home, while on trips or even camping. It brings comfort to the child and gives them some predictability. Our family has a short worship story, prayer, and then my wife and I spend about 2 minutes with each girl tucking them in.
  5. Leave a dim light or object in the room they can easily identify if they awaken during the night. The purpose of this item is just so they can quickly identify where they are. For some kids, this is a night light and for others it is an illuminated clock. This is a type of compass so that they aren’t in a dark room wondering where they are.

Second, make sure you plant some good thoughts in their minds.

There are many opposing theories for the purpose of REM sleep, but one that I find interesting is that it is a time for processing and storing memory. During REM, there is high activity in the Hippocampus, short term memory location, and the amygdala, the place where we react. If the theory is true, it means that during our REM sleep (the time we have nightmares) we are processing our thoughts. While this process is out of our control, they have also found that people that play the same video game before sleep report to have very similar dreams. One of the symptoms of PTSD is nightmares and interrupted sleep. Improving the sleep patterns of those suffering with PTSD has shown some promise in healing.

So, if you want your child to sleep and allow you to sleep, you may want to consider what you are planting in their minds. What do you want their minds to be thinking about both during the day and at night? One of the most powerful verses in the Bible is Phillippeans 4:8, which says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” This verse doesn’t tell us to think about such words, it tells us to think about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. As a parent, we can help our kids by planting thoughts that are part of this list.

The process for planting the thoughts is similar no matter what the word, but for this example let’s focus on admirable. Don’t spiritualize this activity, but instead try to identify everyday people and experiences that are very real and tangible for your kids. Making this overly spiritual tends to make this too theoretical and less helpful. It may be true, but answering “Jesus” to every trait maybe isn’t what I’m suggesting.

  1. Have your own definition of what the word means. For me, admirable focuses on wanting a quality that someone else has for myself. They acted or responded in a way that I wish I did.
  2. Think of someone or something that captures that trait. One trait that I admire selflessness. Point out examples whenever you see one, whether it is someone holding the door open, letting you into traffic, waiting for us to cross the road, or something even bigger that is “Hallmark ‘Hall of Fame'” level.
  3. Make it personal. Share an affirmation or story about a time you saw your child act in a way you admire. Be specific and make sure to close the loop by not only talking about what you saw, but using the word. For example, “I noticed you let your cousin play with your puzzle today and even though you knew where the pieces went, you let him figure it out. It is so fun for me to watch you being unselfish, I really admire that about you and it makes me want to be unselfish more”. Sure, it sounds kind of strange and mushy, but you are planting, not scattering. Precise affirmations put the seed deep.
  4. Encourage them to use their memory. Ask them, “When you get scared tonight, what are you going to think about?” Then have a short talk about specifics. My girls are at the point that they like to think about horses, kitties and fun family memories. These thoughts are pure, lovely, excellent and a bunch of other good stuff. Start helping them choose their thoughts. Rather than trying to forget a scary dream, help them focus on a helpful thought.

Nightmares, just like dreams, remain a mystery. But you’ll get more sleep with some attention to bed time routines and planting good thoughts.

Question: How have you been able to help your kids deal with nightmares?


3 Comments on “Helping Your Kids With Nightmares: Planting Good Thoughts

  1. Great piece! Thanks so much for addressing this issue. This story is from one of my journal entries…

    Last night while the entire Sanford clan was rushing to complete all our
    just-before-bedtime rituals, Renée stopped me in the hall and gave me that “I think it’s time you had a talk with Jonathan” look.

    I knew exactly what she meant. Jonathan had just verbalized for the eighth or tenth time in as many days that he was afraid of thinking about the dreaded “slime monster” after slipping into bed.

    I had to admit, the slime monster was a particularly disgusting creature. It had slipped into the story line of an otherwise winsome children’s public television program two weeks earlier. Just the thought of its ugly face still gave
    Jonathan the creeps.

    Unfortunately, thoughts of the slime monster usually didn’t bother Jonathan until late at night, after Reneé and I had slipped into bed. Not that Jonathan wailed and moaned asking us to rescue him each and every time. It’s just that we always
    felt like checking on him, knowing half the time he’d be lying there in bed
    wide-eyed and scared half out of his wits.

    That night, as I tucked Jonathan into bed, I started talking about the dreaded slime
    monster. Contrary to what some might guess, I knew talking about the creature would help Jonathan not think about it.

    “Jonathan,” I said as I messed up his hair and stroked his face. “You know that ugly slime monster? Well, the next time you think about it, I want you to do two things.”

    I paused. Jonathan is a whiz at math. If I told him one thing, I knew he’d beg me
    to tell him the other.

    “Whenever you think about that old monster, I want you to sit up in bed and slap your mattress.” I whacked the mattress twice for effect, then had him sit up and do it a couple times himself.

    “No, harder Jonathan. I want you to really whack your mattress.” Pause. “Then, tell yourself, ‘This is real. That stupid slime monster isn’t even a little bit real.'”

    Jonathan’s eyes brightened. I had him practice the whole routine two more times, until he really had it down.

    Then Jonathan asked, “What’s next?”

    “Well,then I want you to remember five Very Important Promise words.” I walked over to his desk, picked up his Bible, and turned to the middle.

    “Remember Psalm 23 you’re starting to memorize for Sunday school?”


    “Well, listen for five Very Important Promise words as I read this psalm.” I read from verse one to the middle, where the psalmist boldly declares:

    “…I will fear no evil.”

    I counted out those five VIP words on the fingers of my left hand, then had
    Jonathan repeat them half a dozen times, counting them out on my fingers.

    After explaining that we should fear no evil because of the next five VIP words (“for you [Lord] are with me”), I read the rest of Psalm 23. Jonathan listened intently, more relaxed than I’d seen him in bed for nearly two weeks.

    “Okay, Jonathan. What are you going to do the next time you think about that ugly slime monster?”

    On cue, Jonathan sat up, whacked his mattress twice, recited the first five VIP
    words from Psalm 23, and snuggled back under his blankets. I gave him a high five, prayed with him, gave him a good night kiss, and tucked him in for the night.

    Renée and I stayed up late that evening. But before calling it a night, I checked on Jonathan. He was sound asleep.

    Jonathan’s first words when he woke up later?

    “I will fear no evil!”

    You should have seen his smile.

    • David – thanks for such a great example. You really set him up to take control first physically and then spiritually/mentally. Scripture is full of references about not being afraid and you found a great way to focus on not only the command by why don’t need to be afraid.

      Thanks for taking the time to expand my post with your experience.

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