Dealing with bad dreams

Young kids have real world worries that often come out at night, expressing themselves in bad dreams. Here's how to help.

Swimming pools, dogs, washrooms, vomiting, fire alarms, disasters, floods, thunderstorms, fires, tornadoes, germs, ladders, tors, monsters, bad guys, robbers, kidnappers — welcome to the stuff of bad dreams for six- to eight-year-olds.

“It’s an age when kids become more aware of the world, death, accidents, and the possibility that bad things can happen to them or people close to them,” says Dr. Chuck Emmrys, a child psychologist in private practice in Moncton. “And their dream life is going to reflect that.”

It’s also a time when parents may start to notice their child is developing a fascination with cemeteries and dying, and suddenly this becomes a hot topic of conversation.

Worried? Don’t be. Everyone has anxiety, grown-ups and kids alike. When it’s your kid that’s got concerns, what’s most important is how you deal with them.


Kids take their cue from you, by reading your face and tone. “If you are upset and concerned because your son has had a bad dream, he’s going to think maybe he’s right and something bad is going to happen,” says Dr. Glenn DiPasquale, a registered psychologist in Newmarket, Ont. “It’s really important to remain calm.”


Be matter of fact and supportive. “Oh, you had one of those dreams? That means you’re growing up.” That’s a line Dr. Emmrys recommends. The goal is to normalize the dream and let your child know you are there for them. If your child is worried about death and dying, be honest and comforting. “Yes accidents do happen, and everybody will die someday but it probably won’t happen for a long, long time. And I am here to protect you.”

Physically remove the anxiety

Even Disney movies could trigger cycles of sleepless nights and bad dreams for 10-year-old Carlie Campol of Toronto. “Nighttime was terrible, and Carlie was miserable during the day because she was exhausted,” says her mother, Kellie. When comforting words and warm hugs didn’t work, they created a “worry box”. Carlie would draw pictures of what bothered her and put them in the box. She also drew pictures of positive thoughts, such as what she wanted to do on the next family vacation, and put those under her pillow. “Doing that made her realize she could control her dreams,” says Kellie. “She now knows she can shut off the bad ones.”

Praise their imagination

Dreams can be made to be fun. Instead of saying, “Gee, that was scary” try “Wow, that was dramatic!”


If bedtime has become a source of high drama in your household, Dr. Robin Alter, a registered clinical psychologist in Toronto who is working on a book titled Taming the Anxiety Monster, offers this advice for children with overactive imaginations:

  • Put the day to rest. Ask your child to rhyme off some of the good things that happened during the day and think about what exciting things are in store for tomorrow.
  • Get him to list all the things for which he’s grateful. This will help send him to sleep with a positive frame of mind.
  • Suggest to your child that she give her mind something repetitive to do so she doesn’t generate scary thoughts.
  • One way to do this is to tell her to imagine a blackboard, and then picture herself writing the number “1”. She can erase it and then write the word “sleep,” then erase that and write the number “2,” erase it, and write the word “sleep” again and so on, counting up. “Most kids fall asleep before they hit five,” says Dr. Alter. Zzzzz.Mary Teresa Bitti is an Oakville, Ontario-based freelance writer whose
    eight-year-old daughter ends her day with a prayer and a smile.

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