Understanding Your Child's Bedtime Anxiety and Fears


Q: My 5-year-old daughter wakes crying during the night several times a month, telling me that she has had a scary dream. Is this normal?

A: Nightmares are fairly common in childhood, especially in kids younger than 10 years old. Given the active imagination of a child, bedtime fears typically show when lights are out and there is a “bump in the night.” It is not clear at what age kids begin to dream, but research tells us that nightmares seem to peak during preschool years.

Most of the time nightmares occur for no apparent reason, but other times they show meaning in a child’s way of processing feelings, emotions and thoughts. During sleep, people tend to recap worries and concerns that affect their daily lives. Some occur during stressful times when a child is experiencing something negative or when there is change happening in his or her life. Starting a new school, moving into a new home or joining a sports team might stir feelings that are unsettling. When children repress feelings of anxiety caused by change or stress, this allows for poor emotional regulation, which can result in bad dreams.

Trauma such as a natural disaster, injury or abuse can also be a culprit. It is important to talk with children regularly when one starts to notice atypical behavior such as frequent nightmares or bed-wetting. If this occurs, talk with your doctor to get more clarity on the behavior. 

It is natural for parents to be protective and attempt to shield feelings of hurt and fear that come along as children grow. However, this is impossible. Children need to be taught how to handle their anxieties on their own. It is an important part of growing up. Nonetheless, there are steps you can take to lessen the chance of nightmares. Here are few ideas:

  • Promote healthy sleep patterns by having regular bedtimes and wake-up times. Many times when a child has his or her schedule disrupted, sleep is the first area that becomes neglected. That can lead to irritability, nightmares and fatigue.
  • Avoid scary movies, TV programs, stories and video games before bed. It is important to understand that most children confuse reality and fantasy. Scary movies and video games can “come alive” in the night, resulting in fear.
  • Reassure the child that you are there. Consistently showing a calm presence after a nightmare allows the child to strengthen his or her sense of security and reassurance. 
  • Be a good listener. Don’t talk about the nightmare in detail during the night, but rather have the child talk about it in the morning. Children who are embarrassed struggle with talking and may shut down, so one option would be to have the children draw the dream, expressing it through art. When not put on the spot, children begin disclosing information when anxiety and stress are decreased through play. While drawing or coloring, children can talk about situations such as bullying or poor grades.

Usually nightmares don’t happen often and are not a major concern. The best tool is consistent reassurance during stressful situations promoting protection. If nightmares are recurring, you may want to speak with your doctor to uncover any emotional or behavioral problems. Otherwise, sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite.

Hannah Nail Coble is a clinical social worker who works with children and adolescents at Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital. Send questions to Sherri McMillen at sherri.mcmillen@conehealth.com.

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