Question:

My six year old daughter has been having the same nightmare for the last three months. What can I do to help her?

Answer:

I’d like to know more about your daughter’s dream because the emotions she experiences when she ‘lives through’ the pictures or story that make up the dream can give you both information about feelings she is unconsciously trying to come to terms with. I can offer some information and definitely encourage you to explore her dream with her.

We can look at dreams as “contextualizing” emotions -- they present in pictures emotions that are hard for the dreamer to make sense of, or to feel they can cope with. This means that the series of pictures in your daughter’s nightmare represents emotional themes, such as vulnerability, uncertainty, abandonment, or fearfulness, for example, that are troubling her.

We know that nightmares are especially frequent between the ages of three to six. Some common themes are being chased or hurt, falling, being kidnapped, being lost, or being paralyzed or stuck. Sometimes the nightmare seems to be about a general fear and vulnerability, but when you know the child, you can also identify specific fears or vulnerabilities that are apparent to you in her behaviour in waking life. For example, sometimes the arrival of a sibling or step sibling will set off a cascade of anxieties. The child can act out in aggressive behaviours toward the mother or new sibling. These are generally gestures expressing strong feelings of vulnerability and a desire to remain the only one or the favorite one, or fears that the parent will lose interest and turn all their affections toward the new infant. The child’s aggressive, angry behaviour most often produces guilt feelings as well, and nightmares that are expressions of the child’s fear of punishment, in the form of animals or monsters about to attack or aliens who threaten to kidnap the child, for example. As children get older and (if they are living in a caring and predictable environment) they become more confident in their ability to get their emotional and physical needs met, to be genuinely loved, and have learned how to handle or ward off most dangers, and nightmares decrease in frequency and intensity. Children are bound to feel some level of vulnerability, though there are great individual differences in the intensity of the feelings, which are tied to the safety and quality of the living environment and to the specific sensitivities that are part of the child’s internal world.

Some children live in dangerous worlds that remain dangerous as they grow up. They are surrounded by trauma and stressful situations that produce frightening dreams and nightmares that repeatedly remind them into adulthood of their experiences of vulnerability to harm and loss. I’m assuming this is not the case for your child.

Here are some first aid suggestions to help your daughter resolve her nightmares.

  1. encourage her to describe the dream. Ask her to tell you what happened, what she did, and how it ended.
  2. teach her to confront and conquer danger. Talk with her about different possible solutions to the nightmare and encourage her to become active rather than passive in the dream. You can help her change the dream.
  3. teach her to call on “dream friends” for help when needed during the dream. Let her know that she can do something about the terrifying situation. The family pet, superheroes and heroines, parents, friends, can assist.
  4. share stories that provide a model for successful confrontation. For example, Max, in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, who tames beasts by staring into their yellow eyes; or Alice, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who fights back when the Queen of Hearts shouts, “Off with her head!”
  5. teach skills to cope with anxieties. Children’s fears of fire, or policemen for example can be calmed with factual information and positive experiences, such as visiting a fire station or police station to meet people and see equipment, to change distorted thinking.
  6. help her imagine the dream, how it could come out differently, and then draw it. This helps her to connect with her resources and to experience other options.

 

Some sleep experts believe it is important to break up ongoing brain patterns before returning to sleep. You can rub her arms, help her get up and wash her face, get a drink of water, for example. If her nightmares persist, you might think about taking her to a child therapist who can help her come to terms with her fears through play therapy and family therapy.

Bea Donald, M.A., R.C.C., B.C.A.M.F.T., is a Program Manager and Clinical Supervisor of the Family Counselling / Employee Assistance Program at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.