How to Put Scary Dreams to Bed

Two local experts help unpack nightmare facts and explain how to make nights less frightening for kids
Istock 525735971

“But I can’t sleep. I just had a nightmare.” When your pajama-clad child pads into your bedroom after another bout with the boogeyman, take heart: Nightmares are a near-universal childhood experience, and having intense, frightening dreams isn’t necessarily a sign that something’s wrong. But since these dreams can disrupt slumber — sometimes for the entire family — its worthwhile to try and minimize their intensity, frequency and negative impact on sleep. 

Here’s expert advice on ending night frights from two licensed Charlotte psychologists who help children and adolescents struggling with nightmares and insomnia: Kristin L. Daley, PhD, of Southeast Psych, and Lisa Seropian, Psy.D, who runs a private practice working with children and adults.   

Are there certain life events or developmental stages that make nightmares more likely?
“The majority of adults report having experienced a memorable nightmare at some point in their childhood, and nightmares are most common between the ages of 5 to 11,” Daley says. “Some research suggests that creative individuals may be experience more nightmares. Psychological distress is the most common trigger for nightmares, but this doesn’t mean that you should fear that your child has been through trauma if they have a nightmare. However, it may be helpful explore with them whether or not they have been feeling any increases in stress.”

What’s the difference between nightmares and night terrors?
“A night terror is a sudden episode of intense fear during sleep, accompanied by fear-based physiological reactions such as rapid or shallow breathing, sweating, flushed face and dilated pupils,” Seropian says. “Episodes can be accompanied by physical aggression such as flailing arms, kicking and thrashing about. Night terrors typically occur between the ages of 3 and 12, most commonly closer to age 3, and occur during very deep sleep. Night terrors are far less common than nightmares, and have little in common with nightmares except that both can be related to stress.

With nightmares, the child is easily awakened and can respond to environmental cues like noise or touch, and may recall the episode and even details of the dream. Night terrors aren’t usually remembered the next morning. During a night terror, caregivers should not wake the child or try to reason with them. If a child is flailing, gently hold them, and consider using a cool washcloth to help bring their body temperature down, but do not try to get the child to talk about or recall the episode the next day. After a nightmare, however, it can be helpful to talk about the episode later, in order to help work through the underlying stress.”

How can parents help a child return to sleep after a nightmare?
“The first thing that parents can do is try to evaluate and manage any household stress that could be contributing to these experiences,” Daley says. “It is good to try to soothe child back to sleep by comforting them, but don’t bring them into your room, as this can create even more sleep disturbances. I like to have children identify something in their room (preferably a large stuffed animal or body pillow) that can be a source of comfort when they experience distress.

Do not add nightlights, as the addition of light can further disrupt sleep and increase the likelihood of more nightmares. If they are really afraid of the dark, give them a flashlight they can use to ensure safety, or a light-stuffed animal that will time out after a few minutes. Try not to change bedtime routine, as this will reinforce the fears. But it’s OK to engage in some mild distraction as part of the bedtime routine — reading is a great distraction at bedtime.”

When should caregivers consider seeking help for a child experiencing nightmares?
“A nightmare here or there shouldn’t be a source of concern. Nightmares are considered excessive when they occur more than once per week, even after the source of stress has resolved,” Daley says. “Parents should consider seeking psychological help if they observe that the nightmares have resulted in fear of sleep or are a source of distress during the day.”  

What can families expect if they seek out therapy for a child’s nightmares or insomnia?
“A licensed psychologist skilled and experienced with children and youth is well qualified to assess your child or teen for any underlying psychological or emotional problem such as anxiety, depression or trauma,” Seropian says. “With younger children, a qualified therapist will use play therapy to help your child identify causes of stress, worry or emotional conflict. Children and teens of all ages respond well to cognitive-behavioral techniques. These may include meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery to teach your child to reduce their overall experience of tension and to improve their baseline level of emotional and physiological relaxation.”

What can parents do to reduce the likelihood or frequency of nightmares?
“Maintaining a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine and improving the sleep environment can help. Sleep disruptions can increase the possibility that we will wake out of REM (rapid-eye-movement, or lighter-stage) sleep, so changes in our sleep environment like being in a hotel or moving to a new room can slightly increase the possibility that we experience nightmares,” Daley says. “It is important to think of sleep as a time of intense vulnerability, and recognize that our brain needs a firm sense of safety to allow us to sleep well. Think about the touch, sound and scent of your child’s sleep environment, and try to make these sensations as soothing as possible.”

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and mom.


Kristin Daley, PhD, and Lisa Seropian, Psy.D., agree that improving your child’s sleep environment can help reduce nightmares. Here are five factors that can help make nights more soothing and less stressful.

Temperature: Sleeping in a space that’s too warm can reduce sleep quality and increase the likelihood of nightmares. The ideal sleep temperature is between 65 and 68 degrees fahrenheit.

Light: Sleeping with nightlights or electronic devices in the bedroom can lead to the fitful, poor quality sleep that breeds night frights. Keep lights out of the bedroom and invest in blackout curtains.

Sound: A child’s sleeping space should be soothing and comforting. Intrusive, disruptive noises can pierce this calming atmosphere. If noise pollution interferes with sleep, consider a white noise machine or a soft fan to mask external sounds.

Familiarity: Sleep spaces that feel comforting and familiar can help children relax into a soothing slumber. When sleeping away from home, bring along elements that can increase your child’s feelings of safety, like blankets, stuffed animals or framed family photos.

Comfort: An uncomfortable mattress, pajamas that restrict movement or trap heat, or stiff, scratchy bedding can all inhibit relaxation and reduce sleep quality, which can make sleep disturbances like nightmares more likely. Find bedding and pajamas your child loves and encourage a tidy room — making the bed and maintaining a clean bedroom are proven to improve relaxation and sleep.