Whether children or adults it is possible for everyone to have nightmares. In this context we think of nightmares as bad dreams, dreams where one is injured, hurt, killed, shamed, insulted or we see something dreadful happening to our loved ones. It could be even that none of the above has happened but the dream was of a frightful experience. Whether it is a child or an adult everyone needs comforting when they wake up shaken from a nightmare. Adults more or less comfort themselves knowing it was a bad dream or rationalize the contents of the dream. Children still need adults around them to comfort them when they wake up from nightmares or when they relate the nightmares the next day morning.
“Yesterday, I had a bad dream. I saw a monster chasing me in a school. The monster had a red long tongue and a green sharp tail. I woke up just before it caught me”.
Some of the responses which do not resonate with the child are
“There are no monsters. There is no need to be frightened of them”
You should think of good things when going to bed, then you will not have bad dreams”
“It is just a dream. Nothing like that happens in real life. Trust me”
Children, as well as adults, need validating of their emotions when they go through a nightmare. They don’t need us to invalidate their emotions. Denying them that emotions is indicating that they ‘should not’ be having those emotions. We are asking them not to believe in their emotions but believe someone else (us) who knows better. When we say, “There are no monsters”, we are conveying the idea that they did not see one in their dream. They saw the monsters in their dream, not you. None of these responses is comforting for the child. Empathy is the foundation of a good relationship. A child is shaken by the experience of a nightmare and comfort is the need of the hour. Comfort comes by acknowledging their feelings.
“That must have been scary”, “Monsters do come in dreams”, “Wasn’t that an awful experience?” These kind of statements create empathy. Moral advice like, “You must have thought of bad things”, “Did you pray before going to bed” etc throws the blame on the child for suffering a nightmare. How does that help? We really have no control over our dreams. We cannot will a dream or a nightmare, they just happen. Advice should follow understanding then it makes sense.
Comforting a child who shares a nightmare is an adult’s job. Expressing belief in their experience, empathy statements, making the child describe the nightmare in detail, listening without analyzing, lecturing, moralizing, shows deeper care and concern.
At the moment when the child relates a nightmare, it is less important to analyze the cause of the nightmare but more important to make the child feel safe and secure. Rest can come later.