twitter facebook stumble upon rss

Helping Kids Cope with Fears and Nightmares

sign up for the momlogic newsletter Tweet This

"Mommy, I had a bad dream!" We've all heard that at least once. What's the best way to comfort your child? Psychologist and sleep expert Jill Spivack shares her expert pointers.

child fears and nightmares - kid afraid of monster under bed

Jill Spivack: Fears and occasional nightmares are normal in childhood.

When children are around 2 ½ to 3 years old, their imaginations develop quite a bit and having fears becomes more common. They are now recognizing that they can't be protected from every disappointment or injury by their parents, and their sense of vulnerability increases.

Fears vary depending on the age of the child, but they are a natural part of growth and development all the way through the teen years.

Nightmares are often a reflection of a child's current fears and challenges ... sort of like how adult dreams are often about stressors or unfulfilled wishes in their lives. Nightmares can also come up when there is a major transition going on -- like a move of houses, a sibling's birth, Mom traveling, starting school, or a major stressor in the house. Most nightmares involve some anxiety-producing theme where the child is in danger and feels powerless to help themselves.

When to worry: Nightmares are normal, but very frequent ones are not. If a child is having nightmares 3 times per week or more, this is excessive and may be related to a more serious anxiety disorder or a sign of excessive stress.

If nightmares or fears interfere with daily activities like going to school independently or playing with friends, or create intense mood issues, clinginess, or extreme worries during the day, it may be helpful to talk to a child therapist who specializes in anxiety to figure out the root of the problem and an appropriate form of treatment.


1) Empathize with your child.
Don't try to minimize your child's fears. Let him know compassionately that everyone feels scared sometimes. But don't act as if his fears are a reality. For example, if he's afraid that there is a scary bear in the closet, offer a night-light and leave the door open for comfort, but not to "chase the mean bear away with bear spray." When parents try to use "mean bear spray," they're telling their kids that there's a real possibility that a bear could actually be there! Instead, they need to let them know that they understand that their child is frightened, but the only bears in your house are stuffed animal bears and they're nice and are used to cuddle with.

2) Be reassuring.
If your child has a nightmare, go to his room immediately and hug and comfort him. Let him know he had a bad dream but it wasn't real -- it's just a story in his head. Encourage him to hug his lovey and go back to sleep. Remind him you're right nearby.

If your child is fearful, let him know that he is always safe in his room and in your house. Tell him if necessary that Mom and Dad always lock the door and turn on the alarm before bedtime. Give him a visual of where Mom and Dad will be -- right in their room getting their PJs on and brushing their teeth. Help him remember that Mom and Dad will check in on him from time to time to see when he falls asleep.

Another great tip: Make a little stick figure book, and include in it the bedtime routine. The story might go something like this: "First, Jeremy brushes his teeth, then he gets his PJs on, and then Jeremy goes to bed. Mommy and Daddy will get our PJs on, watch some TV, check on Jeremy at his door, and go to bed in OUR bed. Jeremy can dream of the birthday party he's going to tomorrow or about his great day at the park today. And Mommy and Daddy will be right nearby."

3) Avoid scary stuff.
Avoid scary TV, movies, or books with frightening themes (dark forests, evil stepmothers, poison apples). Watch out also for allowing your child to see the news or violent television, and save your serious conversations with your spouse for when your child isn't around. Kids pick up on more than we know, and if we're talking about terrorism or the war, it may frighten them.

4) Give your child choices.
Ask your child, during the day, to come up with a list of things that would help her feel safe at bedtime. Would she like the night-light on? The door open? Would she like to pick a special security object? Would she like Mommy to check on her after bedtime? This helps the child feel more in control of the fear.

5) Help desensitize your child to his fears.
Help him face his fear in gradual increments. If he's afraid to go to sleep alone, start by making a Mommy or Daddy bed on the floor of his room and inch yourself a little farther out each night, eventually sleeping in the hallway. Allow him to get some good sleep with you nearby for several nights, which will allow his overall sense of fear to decrease. Once he's successful with you in the hallway, you can promise to check on him frequently, but stop sleeping there.

Also, make sure to play frequently in his room during the day so it doesn't become the "separation chamber," but a place that he feels comfortable in.

6) Maintain loving, consistent limits.
In order to help a child through fears, you'll want to continue to stick to a nice early bedtime and keep him sleeping in his room rather than allowing him to move into your room.

You want to help him learn to cope with and eventually overcome his fears, so if he comes to your room or bed to sleep, he isn't learning to overcome anything and this can start a terrible habit. The most surefire way to continue a fear is to avoid dealing with it, and the best way to conquer it is to desensitize the child in manageable chunks. While maintaining limits, avoid sounding stern or angry, though. The child should know that you are keeping up with the routine but are not getting angry and frustrated if possible.

7) Reinforce these points with your child in the morning.
When your child wakes in the morning, make sure to point out that he was safe and cozy in his room all night and that you're very proud of him for staying in his room through the night. You can even offer a toy from the "magic toy box" (that has a bunch of junk toys -- balls, yo-yos, etc.) as a reward for his hard work.

Need sleep? Jill Spivack will answer your questions and give you expert advice in the momlogic community Sleep Group!

next: Girly Girls and Tomboys -- Nature or Nurture?
2 comments so far | Post a comment now
MarMar April 27, 2009, 1:02 PM

Good advice…but y’all about gave ME a nightmare with that picture! Criminy, that is CREEPY!

HMM April 27, 2009, 3:25 PM

I have always told my kiddos (12YO and 9YO now) that if they had a bad dream and were scared that they could come crawl into bed with me for awhile or for the night. I consider keeping my kids from being scared is my number 1 job. My kids sleep in their own beds the VAST majority of the time. They are also very well adjusted. No bad habits, they have learned to overcome their fears as they have matured and learned more about the world. Sorry but I do not see your #6 being manifest at my house. Moms….listen to your gut!

Back to top >>