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Are Bad Dreams A Big Deal?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

Bad dreams are no fun for anyone but they can be a worry for parents. If your child has a bad dream, does it mean anything? Does it mean anything bad? And what can you do to make the bad dreams go away?

Dreaming is something everyone does. You dream more than an hour and a half every night, even though you may not be aware of it. We can guess that babies dream. Newborns experience much more REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep than do adults and REM sleep is associated with dreaming in adults and children. So babies probably dream. We just have no idea what they dream about.

Children ages three to about five dream of simple things, like a bird. These dreams don’t seem to have any story behind them but kids are aware of them and kind of puzzled. They are not entirely sure what is going on. For them, the dream is “in the room.” As far as they’re concerned, dreams are not in their heads but right there, actually happening in their bedrooms. No wonder small children are unnerved by their dreams of big dogs and monsters.

Children ages seven or so include themselves in their dreams and also include other people they know. Their dreams tend to be located in familiar situations. Kids this age might have scary dreams with real story lines. These older children, who understand that they can think thoughts, are more easily convinced than are younger kids that dreams are not physically real. But even for them bad dreams can be upsetting and a cause for sleeping with the lights on.

Children ages eleven to thirteen start to dream in complex story lines that might be allegorical or symbolic. Now children can dream memorably fantastic dreams that seem “to mean something.” Do you remember a dream from your teen years that has stuck with you all this time?

Mostly, dreams are not a cause for concern. Your child might need some comforting in the night but then not even remember the dream in the morning. Kids’ dreams don’t need interpretation, and if you think you can figure out what triggered a particular dream for your child, you should probably keep this knowledge to yourself. Don’t bring up the dream over breakfast just because you are “curious.”

But notice if dreams seem to recur or make your child anxious. Nightmares and disturbing dreams, especially dreams that recur frequently, can mean your child is under some sort of stress during the day. See if there are things going on that you can smooth out for your child or that might be helped by a heart-to-heart talk. Pay attention to increased levels of stress in her life, like issues at school, family troubles, or overscheduling. Do what you can to relieve this pressure.

There is also evidence that bad dreams can be caused by scary plots and disturbing images in movies and video games. If your child is troubled by dreams, dial back his media consumption and monitor more closely the content of what he does watch. Scary entertainment isn’t fun if it keeps everyone up at night.

Keep in mind that “night terrors” – out-of-control screaming by a preschool child at about the same time every night – are not real dreams at all. They occur during the deepest levels of sleep, not during REM sleep. One way to derail night terrors is to wake the child just before an episode typically occurs. If a night terror tends to hit at 11:30 pm, then wake your child at 11 or 11:15. Take him to the bathroom, get him a glass of water, or something similar, just to break the pattern he’s fallen into. You might find this trick helpful in sidetracking ordinary bad dreams as well.

Bad dreams are more a problem for parents than for children, who seem to be able to fall back asleep readily while you lie awake and stew. Certainly, if you think the issue is more serious than normal bring it up with your pediatrician.

But with a little reassurance, everyone can sleep better at night!

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.