When bad dreams happen to good kids

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Nightmares happen at night. And this very obvious fact is a grave cause for concern for both the children who wake terrified and their parents who are in charge of comforting them. Here are some answers to common questions about children and nightmares. I hope that they help guide your expectations and approach.

The picture below comes from a collection by photographer Joshua Hoffine.

Childhood nightmares

1. What is the difference between a nightmare and a bad dream?

A nightmare is viewed in literature as a dream that contains negative emotions and/or events that wake the sleeper and can be remembered. It is seen apart from an anxiety dream/bad dream that is unpleasant but does not involve waking.

2. How old are children when they start to have nightmares?

The truth is no one can say. It is thought that the occurrence of nightmares is highest between age five and ten years (peaking at six years). It is assumed that there is a strong link between a child's stage of development and the theme of their nightmare. At .different ages children have different cognitive abilities such as the ability to remember, imagine or worry. As these skills develop their nightmares are often shaped by the fears that this brings. For example, a nine month old child may experience separation anxiety and wake due to dreams  about their mother leaving. A two year old child may start to desire to jump off furniture and wake due to dreams of falling. A five year old may begin to draw pictures of giants and monsters and wake as these creatures have come alive. The older the child, the better their communication skills and the easier it is to confirm if a nightmare occurred.

3. How common are nightmares?

70% of adults report having nightmares as children. Studies have shown that children have more nightmares than their parents are aware of. The most common themes reported are being chased or falling.

4. Is my child okay? Why is this happening?

In current research, there is no link between childhood negative or traumatic life events and the occurrence of nightmares. There is also no link between behaviour problems and nightmares. Nightmares are a childhood phase and a useful way for children to process anxiety. The occurence of nightmares should steadily decreases from age ten years. Children who suffer from chronic nightmares sufferers often become adults who suffer from chronic nightmares.

Want some advice? Feel free to share any more questions below.


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