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Nightmare Remedies: Helping Your Child Tame the Demons of the Night

by Alan Siegel, PhD

Our children do not have to suffer their nightmares in silence, brooding about the lingering feeling of suffocation left by the formless ghost or shuddering at the memory of the razor-sharp teeth of a pack of wolves ripping into their flesh. There are remedies for even the most dreadful nightmares.

Unfortunately, the raw terror that lingers after a nightmare may accentuate a child's insecurity and bring on anxiety for hours or even days afterward. It may even disturb their ability to sleep by inducing insomnia, or fears and phobias about sleeping and dreaming. To help your child restore their capacity to sleep and to harness the healing and creative potential of scary dreams, we must help them break the spell of their nightmares.

The silver lining of painful nightmares is that through the often-transparent symbolism, they shine a spotlight on the issues that are most the upsetting, yet inexpressible for your child. Every nightmare, no matter how distressing, contains vital information about crucial emotional challenges in your child's life. To a parent whose ears and heart are open, listening to the most distressing nightmares is like hearing your child's unconscious, speaking directly to you delivering a special call for help.

Most nightmares are a normal part of coping with changes in our lives. They are not necessarily a sign of pathology and may even be a positive indication that we are actively coping with a new challenge. For children, this could occur in response to such events as entering school, moving to a new neighborhood or living through a divorce or remarriage.

Using role-playing and fantasy rehearsals, parents can coach their children to assert their magical powers and tame the frights of the night. New endings for dreams can be created so that falling dreams become floating dreams and chase dreams end with the capture of the villain. When we give our children reassurance and encouragement to explore creative solutions to dream dilemmas, we restore their ability to play with the images in their nightmares rather than feeling threatened or demoralized. These assertiveness skills carry over into future dream confrontations and lead to greater confidence to face waking challenges.

Sophia's Spider Dream

Even very young children can learn to encounter and overcome the threatening creatures of their nightmares. My daughter, Sophia, mentioned her first dream just before she turned two. She woke from a nap one day and spontaneously said "bird fly outside" while motioning towards the window with her hands. Because Sophia had always been fascinated with the flight and sounds of birds and airplanes, my wife and I weren't sure if it was really a dream or just a fantasy. However, a month later, Sophia woke up screaming and sobbing with a bona fide nightmare about spiders.

The Attack of the Dream Spider

'Pider on Sophia's leg...Dad, no more 'pider please!"

While holding Sophia and comforting her, she continued to sob, saying, "Sophia scared". I reassured her that "Daddy will protect you from spiders". I am going to teach you how to get those bad spiders away from Sophia" She listened with wide eyes. "When you see those spiders, tell them Go away bad spiders. Get out of Sophia's bed and don't come back!" I emphatically repeated this anti-spider anthem three times. Suddenly Sophia smiled a slightly mischievous smile. "Go away 'piders" She said tentatively. She repeated it twice and smiled waving her hands as if to motion the spiders away. She was significantly calmed and after a bit of rocking and a short story, she fell back to sleep easily.

When Sophia woke the next morning, I asked her "Did you have any more dreams?" She flashed a playful smile and said "piders!" and laughed. For two more days, she grinned and said 'piders' when she woke. These subsequent dream reports were probably fabricated judging by the mischievous look on her face. However, within a few days she began to report other dreams, mostly animals, some threatening and some friendly.

Sophia's dream spiders were more terrifying than anything in waking reality. I took the dream spiders seriously by talking directly to them and offering Sophia reassurance (both physical and emotional), a concrete strategy for facing the dream creatures and follow-up to reinforce her ability to break the spell of the attacking dream spiders.

Children's Nightmares

Children suffer more frequent nightmares than their parents and, prior to the age of six, nightmares are especially common. As soon as your child can speak, he or she may wake with a one or two word tale of a wolf or ghost. There is even speculation among specialists in child development that the sleep disturbances of infants in the first year of life may be wordless nightmares.

Nightmares diminish as children grow older, master their fears, and gain more control over their world. A long-term study of 252 children showed that five to ten percent of seven- and eight-year-old children had nightmares once a week. By the time children in the study were between eleven and fourteen, disturbing dreams were infrequent, especially for boys.1

Most nightmares are a normal part of coping with changes in our lives. They are not necessarily a sign of pathology and may even be a positive indication that we are actively coping with a new challenge. For children, this could occur in response to such events as entering school, moving to a new neighborhood or living through a divorce or remarriage.

A good working assumption is that many nightmares in children are reactions to upsetting events, situations and relationships. It is important to keep in mind that often a stress such as moving to a new neighborhood will be complicated by a chain reaction of other changes. Nightmares will usually diminish in intensity and frequency as the child and the family recover and cope with stresses such as a death in the family or birth of a new family member.

Eight-year-old Brian and his younger brother Jake were not only moving from the house they had always lived in, they were changing schools and saying good-bye to school friends. After the last day at his old school, Brian's family moved into his friend Colin's house for the summer while Colin's family went on vacation. On the first night of sleeping in his friend's room, Brian had a dreadful nightmare.

In tears, Brian woke and came running into his parent's room, lamenting his bad dream. "I can't stop thinking about the awful smell". Brian's mother, Gina, gave him a sympathetic hug and invited him to sit down and tell the whole dream. Sobbing slightly, Brian blurted out what he could remember.

Poison Gas

I see my friends Colin and his brother Ross opening the door and going into a dark room like the room I am staying in. I keep waiting over 1/2 hour but they don't come out. Finally, I decide to go in and check on them. I smell gas and think it might be poison gas. Suddenly I see them lying dead on floor.

Seeing Brian's distress, Gina wanted to reassure him. "If someone is dead in a dream, does it mean they are really gonna die?" " No, Brian, things that we dream about are important but they don't usually come true when we are awake. Possibly this dream isn't about people dying but about missing your friends after we move." "Yeah but it was so gross seeing them dead and the gas made me feel like I was gonna get poisoned too". Gina responded "That must have been a horrible sight. I would have been scared too if I had that dream."

After a moment of pondering, Brian relaxed a bit and said "that room I am staying in does smell kinda stinky." He had complained before bed that his friend Colin's collection of old teddy bears smelled bad. Gina agreed and taking the dream at face value, she suggested that they spray some air freshener before he goes back to sleep. As she looked in the cabinets for the freshener, Gina realized that Brian's dream went beyond a simple reaction to the foul smell of the stuffed animals. She realized that she and her husband had been so busy packing and preparing for the move, they hadn't had time to really talk with Brian about his sense of loss and his fears of the unknown.

Brian's morbid nightmare helped his mother understand his emotional needs. As a result of the dream, Gina spent more time talking about the move with Brian and his brother. The family took steps to keep connections with old friends, and visited their new school during the summer to make it more familiar. While in their temporary house, they also moved the smelly bears and deodorized the room.

The poison gas was a response not only to the actual bad smell in the room in which Brian was staying but also symbolized the dangerous sense of insecurity Brian felt, moving from a familiar home and school and friends to an unfamiliar and unpleasant situation. If death or grief is not a current issue in the dreamer's life, death dreams frequently symbolize loss or painful changes. For Brian, the dark room that swallowed up his friends and killed them expressed his multiple losses as well as fear.

During a period of stress or family crisis, parents should expect more frequent nightmares. Likewise, when a child suddenly has an increase in nightmares, they are letting you know they are feeling overwhelmed and insecure. You don't have to interpret or explain their nightmares. Your reassurance and empathy plus some hugs are the first step towards helping them restore their emotional balance.

Recurring Nightmares

Anyone who keeps track of their dreams and nightmares will begin to notice recurring symbols and patterns. Studies of people who have kept dream journals for as long as 50 years have shown that certain animals or houses or people who appear in a person's childhood or teenage dreams will still turn up when their hair is gray.

Your own personal repertoire of nightmare symbols may emerge early in childhood, evolving and transforming throughout your life span. After being stung by a bee when she was three, Annie began to have repetitive dreams of being chased and bitten by bees and other bugs. While her parents initially assumed that the bee sting experience was still bothering her, they began to notice that Annie would get stung in her dreams when other things would upset her; when her Mom went on a business trip, when she temporarily lost her favorite doll, and just after her brother was born. Her bee sting dreams had become symbolic of events that threatened her security.

Through repeating dream patterns, such as Annie's bee sting dreams, by earlier traumatic events, they are later stimulated by current stressful situations. Repeating dream patterns may also be influenced by disturbing images from television and film (no one wants a Freddie Kreuger dream), family fears, cultural stereotypes, myths, and religious beliefs and stories.

What can we learn from recurrent dreams? They are often a warning of lingering psychological conflicts. For example, children of divorce frequently dream that their parents have reunited; abuse survivors are often victims or perpetrators of violence in their dreams; and adopted children intermittently dream of their birth parents.

Conversely, changes within recurring dreams may signal the onset of resolving a psychological impasse. For example, a survivor of child abuse who was making a therapeutic breakthrough in her emotional recovery dreamed of triumphing over a shadowy, hostile figure that had threatened and chased her in innumerable prior nightmares.

Stages of Resolution in Recurring Dreams

Three stages of resolution can be identified in children's nightmares.

  • Threat: In the dream, a main character is threatened and unable to mount any defense. For example, he or she may be paralyzed while trying to flee the jaws of a hungry ghost imprisoned by aliens.
  • Struggle: Attempts to confront the nightmare adversary are partially successful in fending off danger. An example would be temporarily escaping a robber with a knife and trying to dial the phone for help.
  • Resolution: The nightmare enemy, opponent, or oppressor is vanquished and the threatening creatures are put in cages, slain, or held at bay with magic wands, or otherwise disarmed.

In some cases, children spontaneously resolve a recurring nightmare as the formerly distressing situations which caused the nightmares get worked out in the child's real life. Bob had one such persistent childhood nightmare that changed decisively with time. Although his father was not inherently cruel and abusive, his stormy personality often led to outbursts of anger that frightened Bob and his sister.

After his father's return from military service, Bob began having nightmares about horrific encounters with a ghost-like monster in the basement of his house. These ghost nightmares continued for almost two years from when he was seven until he was nine.

At first the ghost dreams would leave him shaking in abject terror. As time went by he would try to stand up to the ghost but as the following dream indicates, he did not immediately prevail.

Screaming at the Ghost in the Basement

I was down in the basement in bed sleeping and it was the terror of all terrors. I knew the ghost was around the corner to the right between me and these stairways where you could get back up to the house. I knew if I moved or made the slightest sound the ghost would get me. I couldn't stand the tension so I finally decided I would just yell and let the ghost come out and get me. I sat up in bed and screamed as loud as I could. The ghost came roaring out of its hiding place and jumped all over me and attacked me and I instantly woke up.

Bob woke up feeling simultaneously scared and defiant. Despite the consequences, he was determined to fight back. He later interpreted the threatening ghost as a symbol of his father's angry outbursts.

When his father had returned from overseas, he had not only interfered with Bob's special relationship with his mother, but had been punitive with Bob as he tried to reassert his role as "man of the house." Gradually, as Bob adjusted to his father's presence, he became less intimidated by his father's moods and began to identify with the positive characteristics of his father -- especially his father's creativity with tools and building.

Bob's gradually improving relationship with his father was reflected in a breakthrough dream.

Dad Helps Me Float to Safety

I was at the top of the basement stairs looking down. The stairs disappeared from under me and I was falling and falling into the basement, terrified the ghost would get me when I hit the floor. Just then I saw my dad down there. He turned on this blue light and as soon as he did I floated into the basement and knew that I was safe.

Bob's father who had been verbally harsh during the months after returning from overseas had begun to soften and allow Bob to work with him in his workshop which, happened to be in the basement. Providing the blue light symbolized how his father had transformed from a competitor for Bob's mother's love into a positive paternal role model and protector. That positive change in the father/son relationship allowed Bob to work out his recurrent nightmare.

A crucial factor in understanding repetitive dreams is looking at the degree of resolution or mastery in the dream. As children mature emotionally and intellectually, they gain increasing control over their childhood fears and feel more confident in their ability to solve problems and handle situations independently. This gradually increasing sense of control is reflected not only in their waking achievements but in their dream life.

The Four R's That Spell Nightmare Relief

There are many potentially beneficial nightmare remedies that parents, family members, and even siblings can use to help a child break the spell of a disturbing nightmare and transform terror into creative breakthroughs. In order to soothe the lingering terror and banish the demons of the night, you must learn the Four R's that spell nightmare relief for your children. They are Reassurance, Rescripting, Rehearsal, and Resolution.

Reassurance is the first and most important dimension of remedying children's nightmares. This includes "welcoming the dream" with special emphasis on physical and emotional reassurance, which will calm your child's anxiety and help them feel safe enough to give details about the nightmare and be open to further exploration.

Everyone has nightmares and no one has to bear the pain without help. Reassurance quells the post-nightmare jitters and allows you and your child an opportunity to discover both the creative possibilities and the source of what sparked the nightmare that may still be disturbing your child.

Rescripting means inviting and guiding your child to imagine changes in the outcome of their dream by reenacting or rewriting the plot. Even with young children, rescripting is most effective when it is a collaborative process of brainstorming together. The most well known form of rescripting is creating one or more new endings for a dream using art work, fantasy, drama, and writing.

Rescripting2 is like assertiveness training for the imagination. Ominous dream monsters, demons, and werewolves can be tricked and trapped, tamed and leashed, given time-outs, bossed around, and generally made less intimidating. With parental assistance, the child with nightmares can be taught to revolt and throw off the yoke of dream oppression by using magical means such as fairy dust, a wizard's wand, Star Trek™ "Phasers," special incantations and spells, or other handy tools of the imagination. Very often developing and rehearsing solutions to dream dilemmas carries over to increased confidence in facing waking conflicts.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of resolving nightmares is helping your child create their own repertoire of "Magical Tools" for dream assertiveness. These tools are limited only by your imagination and can be inspired by your child's interests, current movies or television shows, your families cultural background, books or projects they are completing for school, and so on. Just as garlic or a crucifix repels a werewolf or a silver bullet kills a vampire, some magical tools can be chosen to disarm a specific character in a recurring nightmare such as a special spray for ghosts or an invisible shield for gunmen. Other tools can be of the all-purpose variety such as the old reliable magic wand, Luke Skywalker's "force" from Star Wars or even trusty police tools such as handcuffs or a secure jail cell with the key thrown away!

Zoe, at age six, had occasional, recurrent nightmares of fire ever since she witnessed the Oakland/Berkeley Firestorm3 when she was two years old. The following dream was one of the worst episodes of this theme.

The Killing Fire

I was at my school and about six people came and set fire to the whole school and it burned all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge and they were going to kill all the kids and they only chose to save my sister.

She woke from the dream in the middle of the night, tearfully pleading for hugs and reassurance. She did not feel comfortable or ready to talk about the nightmare at the time or even in the morning before school. Because of her artistic inclination, she was, however, intrigued with the idea of drawing her fire dream that evening and ended up making a series of sketches with markers.

By talking about the elements of her drawing, the bright colors, the architecture of her school, and placement of the Golden Gate Bridge, Zoe was able to begin exploring the dream through the medium of her sketches. This led her to recall some of her earlier fire dreams and to ask a series of questions about the Firestorm--how it had started and where she was during the event. She decided she wanted to actually see the site of the fire, which was located quite near some friends of the family. At the time of the visit, many houses had been rebuilt, but she was fascinated by the fact that there were still empty lots and burned out foundations where homes had been destroyed.

Like many children her age and older, Zoe did not want to discuss other fears connected to her recent fire dream except to say that she had the dream after watching a violent movie at a friend's house. Although she may have had other worries at the time of the nightmare, her desire not to explore further was respected by her parents. However her artistic rendition of the dream, curious questions, and resulting visit to the fire zone resolved her fire nightmares. Subsequent to her creative exploration of this nightmare, she gradually became more forthcoming in reporting upsetting dreams and even offering ideas about what caused them based on the previous day's events.

Even chronic nightmare sufferers, both adults and children, have found relief from relatively simple treatments and techniques. Vietnam veterans with persistent nightmares have been successfully treated with psychotherapy approaches that focus on resolving both the dreams and the unresolved traumas that caused the dreams to continue.

There are a few areas of caution that should be considered with respect to rescripting. The first is the use of violence in fantasy solutions to bad dreams. Killing the nightmare adversary may not be the optimal solution even in imaginary battles. Ann Sayre Wiseman, author of Nightmare Help warns that suggesting the murder or destruction of a dream foe may subtly encourage violent solutions to life problems and reinforce a tendency that children are already overexposed to through television, movies, news and violence in our society. On the other hand, encouraging creative, nonviolent, assertion in working out dream battles, may lead to improved and more constructive waking problem-solving skills.

The second caution is about the limits of creating new endings for nightmares. There is a misconception that using fantasy and magical tools to create a new dream ending assures that the underlying problem that stimulated the dream has been resolved. This may not be the case. While impressive results have been obtained using rescripting to reduce the frequency and intensity of nightmares, we must remember that nightmares, especially recurring ones, are messages--even warnings--from within that we are overwhelmed by a new situation, crisis, or chronic conflict such as a custody dispute or marital conflict. When there is a persistent problem in a child's life, we may need to go beyond reassurance and rescripting to discover fundamental solutions to the life problems that set off the dream. This leads us to the two final R's - rehearsal and resolution.

Rehearsal is practicing solutions to a nightmare's various threats. Going a step beyond the new endings or magical tools used in rescripting a nightmare, rehearsal involves repeating the dream and its solutions in various forms until a sense of mastery or accomplishment has been achieved. This stage parallels the stage of psychotherapy called "working through," where for adults, the insights they have gained need to be put to the test--at first in the relationship with their therapist and gradually by practicing new forms of relating with others and experiencing themselves in new ways.

Resolution is the final stage of alleviating the haunting spell of a nightmare. Discovering the source of the nightmare in your child's life and working towards acknowledging and even correcting the life problem that has caused the nightmares are preliminary steps. Resolution can only come after a child feels secure enough (reassurance) to explore new solutions through art, writing, drama, and discussion (rescripting) and has practiced those solutions (rehearsal) with a parent or adult guide.

If a child continues to be curious about what is emerging from his or her exploration of a dream, they can be encouraged to honor their dream by connecting it to a person, situation, or feeling in their current life. By keeping in mind the major emotional issues affecting your child such, as the birth of a sibling or starting at a new school, parents can be alerted to the probable sources of a nightmare.

Through the process of exploring, brainstorming, and rehearsing metaphoric solutions to their children's nightmares, parents begin to feel more secure in linking dream symbols to the current events and relationships in their child's waking world. Nightmares emphasize to parents exactly what is most difficult for their child and open up possibilities for resolving important emotional challenges.

When To Seek Help for Nightmares

Whereas moderate nightmare activity may be a potentially healthy sign that the unconscious mind is actively coping with stress and change, frequent nightmares indicate unresolved conflicts that are overwhelming your child. When children's nightmares persist, when their content is consistently violent or disturbing, and when the upsetting conflicts in the dreams never seem to change or even achieve partial resolution, it may be time to seek further help from a mental health specialist or pediatrician. Especially if there is no obvious stress in your child's life, repetitive nightmares could also be caused by a reaction to drugs or a physical condition, so it is advisable to consult a physician to rule out medical causes when nightmares do not appear to have a psychological origin.

Repetitive nightmares are often accompanied by other symptoms especially fears of going to sleep, anxieties or phobias. Increased nightmares can usually be linked to a recognizable stress in the child's life such as absence or loss of a parent, suffering abuse or violence, marital or custody disputes in the family, social or academic difficulties at school, such as being teased or having an undiagnosed learning or attention problem.

Nightmares are more often like a vaccine than a poison. A vaccination infects us with a minute dose of a disease that mobilizes our antibodies and makes us more resistant to the virulence of smallpox or polio. As distressing as nightmares can be, they offer powerful information about issues that are distressing your child. When children share their nightmares and receive reassurance from their parents, they feel the emotional sting of the dream, but also begin the process of strengthening their psychological defenses and facing their fears with more resilience. Gradually, a parent's empathic response to their child's nightmares can break the cycle of bad dreams and transform intensely negative experiences into triumphs of assertiveness and collaborative family problem solving.

The above excerpt was reprinted with permission from Dreamcatching: Every Parent's Guide to Exploring and Understanding Children's Dreams and Nightmares by Alan Siegel and Kelly Bulkeley. Published by Random House's Three Rivers Press. Copyright © 1998.


  1. Ernest Hartmann, 1991.
  2. The concept of "rescripting" was adapted from Gordon Halliday, "Treating Nightmares in Children" in Charles Schaeffer, (editor) Clinical Handbook of Sleep Disorders in Children (New York, Jason Aronson, 1995)
  3. Alan Siegel, "The Dreams of Firestorm Survivors", in Barrett, Deirdre (editor), Trauma and Dreams, (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1996).

Reprinted with permission from Alan Siegel, PhD

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Reviewed by athealth on February 6, 2014.