Helping Your Child After a Bad Dream: A 3-Step Guide

Imagine you are 7 years old: You wake from a bad dream where giants snatch you and your little sister out of your beds to take you away and eat you! Pretty terrifying, right? Well, this was my daughter’s dream last night (thanks to the children’s book The BFG she read at school)! Nightmares are a common occurrence in childhood, sometimes based on real-life experiences, media exposure, or completely made-up scenarios. Helping your child after a bad dream in the right way can make them feel safe, so they can get back to sleep quickly. Through my years as both a mother and a Pediatric Sleep Consultant working with families, I’ve developed three essential steps to comfort your child after a bad dream: Validate, Talk About the Facts, and Dream Plan.

Step 1: Validate Their Feelings

The first step in helping your child after a bad dream is to validate their feelings. Acknowledge their fear and reassure them that it’s okay to feel scared. Comfort to calm.

  • Empathy is Key: First, get down to their eye level and use a soothing voice. Phrases like “I understand you were really scared” or “I know that felt really real” can be very comforting.
  • Physical Comfort: Offer a hug, hold their hand, or rub their back. Physical touch can be incredibly reassuring. Also, you could get them their comfort object to snuggle with or even one of your shirts to sleep with so they can feel close to you.
  • Avoid Dismissing: Never dismiss their fear by saying things like “There’s nothing to be afraid of” or “That’s not scary.” These statements, though well-meaning, can make your child feel misunderstood and alone.

Step 2: Talk About the Facts

Once your child feels validated, it’s time to gently introduce some facts to help ground them in reality. Focus on what is true.

  • Describe the Environment: Remind them where they are. You can say, “You’re in your room, in your own bed, and you’re safe.”
  • Separate Dream from Reality: Explain that dreams are not real and that they are safe. You might say, “Dreams are like stories our brain tells us when we’re asleep. Sometimes our brain makes up stories that we don’t like, and sometimes our brain makes up stories we do like. I can tell this dream was one you didn’t like.”
  • Talk about What is True: If your child shares what their dream was about, gently remind them that what they dreamt about is not true and couldn’t really happen. Questions like, “Could that really happen?” or “What is true?” can help guide the conversation. For example, when my daughter dreamt about the giants, I reminded her that the giants aren’t real and that even though her dream felt really real it isn’t. 

Step 3: Dream Plan

Now that your child is feeling calm, the next step in helping your child after a bad dream is to help them come up with a new dream for when they go back to sleep. This step empowers them and is my personal favorite.

  • Create a Positive Ending: Encourage your kiddo to come up with a happy ending to the dream. For instance, if they dreamt of a witch, they can imagine becoming a superhero and chasing it away.
  • Change the Scary Part: Teach your child that they can change the scary part into something funny. For example, instead of a mean wolf that chases children, they can change the wolf into a dancing wolf that makes tea and cookies. Anything silly!
  • Meet Each Other in the Dream: Decide on a “destination” where the two of you can “meet” when you both go back to sleep. It can be real, like Disney World or the park, or it can be a totally made-up place like “Fairy Land” where you both become fairies with sparkly purple wings. This will give your child something positive to focus on as they fall back to sleep.

Helping your child after a bad dream is a normal part of childhood, but how we respond as parents can make a big difference. By validating feelings, talking about the facts, and creating a dream plan, you can help your kiddo feel safe and secure, making nighttime a little less frightening. With these steps, you can turn a scary experience into an opportunity for comfort and connection.

If you find you need more support, I am here to help! Click here to book an Intro Call so we can chat about working together.

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