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The Monsters, Inc. idea that our children’s nightmare monster is really a misunderstood spotted blue cuddly bear-with-horns is charming. In real life, though, if I see a bear-with-horns walk through my daughter’s closet, I don’t care how “soft and cuddly” he is, he’s getting a mouthful of chair.
Don’t you wish that’s how we could deal with our children’s nightmares? With a hard lamp over the head?
It’s a frustrating feeling, holding your sobbing child in your arms, knowing that this battle can’t be fought with fists. That your protection is as feeble as the sweaty sheets on the floor.
Well, I’ve always hated feeling helpless. In the past 15 years of parenting, Cameron and I have developed a few tricks to help our children fight back the Nightmare Monster.
It’s time I shared them.
Your Plan of Attack for the Nightmare Monster
- Daytime Vigilance—avoid scary things and prevent overtiredness
- Bedtime Vigilance—proactively prepare your child for sweet dreams
- Reactive Vigilance—develop techniques to teach your child how to mentally fight back
That’s the big picture. Now, let’s zoom in closer and peek at what those techniques actually look like.
Nightmares typically happen after midnight. If your child wakes up screaming before midnight and has no memory of the episode the next morning, you may be dealing with a Night Terror instead.
Defeating the Nightmare Monster
During the Day
There are two things you can do during the day to help prevent a visit from the Nightmare Monster at night.
- Don’t expose your child to scary things.
- Make sure your child isn’t over-tired.
Obvious Tip #1: Scary Things Are Actually Really Scary
I know this is obvious, but it’s really important to monitor and limit the things your child sees during the day. As adults, we can see scary things and then disregard them. Obviously there’s no ski-mask murderer in your basement.
One of the wonders (and curses) of childhood is the blurry line between the real and the unreal. The boundaries on their imagination are not as rigid as ours. In fact, there is no pretend and real to them. It’s all real.
For example, his lovey isn’t just a teddy bear. Teddy is real, and in your child’s brain, he looks like this:
That’s why it’s so traumatic when Teddy is missing! In the same way that Teddy is real, those scary dementors on Harry Potter are also real. So it is really important that we, as good parents, set aside our own desires for a while. There will be plenty of time to watch whatever you want after her tiny head is on the pillow.
Obvious Tip #2: An Overtired Child is More Easily Frightened
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to feel overwhelmed by something when you’re tired? One of the concepts I use with my girls in training them to monitor their emotions is the concept of HALT. (My Mom actually taught it to me first. Thanks, Mom!)
HALT is a pneumonic device to remind me when to slam the brakes and seriously consider my thoughts. Is what I am thinking actually true? Or do I just feel like it’s true?
If I am any one of those things, I need to be very careful about making any decisions or assumptions. In those situations, my emotions can’t be trusted to tell me the truth! My judgment is clouded.
In the same way, your child’s already limited ability to think rationally about something is going to be further depleted when he is any of those things (especially tired!). Life is going to feel a LOT more scary than normal.
Children 2-4 years old still need about 2.5 hours of sleep during the day in order to prevent being overtired at bedtime. If your child isn’t getting that important nap, take my inexpensive online nap coaching class (taught as a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach with 7 years experience).
Defeating the Nightmare Monster
During the Bedtime Routine
Kids thrive under routine. Setting up a simple bedtime routine can really help your child’s brain adjust and get ready for sleepytime, preventing fitful sleep or jack-in-the-box wakeups.
After he’s brushed his teeth, put on those adorable truck pajamas, and read his favorite bedtime books, take a few minutes to proactively deal with any fears by using a few clever sprays that emotionally do the trick and actually leave a sleepytime scent behind.
It’s amazing how a few sprays of something calming can give a child the confidence he needs to fall asleep!
When you’re done spraying down the room, take some time to talk through what she hopes she’s going to dream about that evening. Encourage tons of positive images to help your child focus on while falling asleep.
Dealing with the
Nightmare Monster Afterwards
At some point, unfortunately, the Nightmare Monster is going to pay your child a visit. He will cry out loudly. She will crawl weeping into your bed. And your heart will just break.
How do I fix this? How do I make this better?
Here are three techniques to walk your child through the nightmare without causing any re-traumatization.
The Balloon Trick
This is the nightmare trick my kids ask for, time and time again. It goes like this:
- Pretend to pull a balloon out from somewhere. Ask your child what color it should be. Polka Dots? Stripes?
- Pretend to stretch the balloon out, then pinch your fingers to your lips and begin to blow. Don’t forget to comment about how big it’s getting!
- Ask your child to pull those bad dreams out of his head and put them inside the balloon. (Think of it as a silver string, Harry Potter style.)
- Ask your child for a string for the balloon, then pretend to tie the balloon off, letting it “bounce” on the string. (A few times I’ve pretended the balloon got away, shooting around the room *pointing everywhere* and hitting our dog on the bottom. LOTS of laughs at that. Then we restarted.)
- Now, hand your child the pretend string and let her “let it go”. Then talk her through what the balloon sees as it travels up through your ceiling, on the roof, through the trees, etc. I always throw in a few started birds, an airplane, the space station, etc.
As Christians, Cameron and I usually end by describing how the balloon goes up to heaven (after naming all the planets), and to God’s throne, where Jesus ninja-style pops it and scatters that naughty Nightmare Monster into tiny pieces. Jesus-as-a-Ninja also produces some giggles. (I believe God, who has a fantastic and gracious sense of humor, is also amused by my description of his awesome ninja skills.)
This method works every time.
The Good Memories Garden
Another method to use when dealing with your child’s Nightmare Monster, is to help them visualize a garden.
- Ask your child to describe the most beautiful garden in the world. What color are the flowers? Are there any animals in the garden? Fairies? Gnomes?
- Ask them to find a part of the garden that looks a little bare and ask him to dig a little hole, pretending, and place his bad dreams inside.
- Pat around the pillows and sheet, saying you’re looking for something. “Ah ha! I found it!”
- Have your child hold out his hand and place the “seed” in his palm. Then have him place the “seed” inside the hole with the bad dreams inside, explaining that sometimes beautiful things can grow from the very things that scare us.
- Then pretend to see a HUGE plant growing out of the bed, exclaiming how big it is…look at those leaves! etc. etc.
- Ask your child to help your child describe what color the petals are, etc.
- Comment that the flower looks a little sleepy, and they should sing it a little lullaby to help it sleep.
We haven’t used this method as frequently as the Balloon Trick, but I’ve found that when we do use it, the effective imagery is very helpful in getting her to disregard the disturbing images of the bad dreams and focus on the interesting and beautiful pictures we are painting in her head instead.
Using Art to Fight a Nightmare
The Sleep Lady recommends using art as a way to help your child process a nightmare the following day, if your child still seems disturbed.
- Have your child draw out the nightmare monster, and then help them see it in a new way, but commenting about how he looks like he has a silly grin on his face, or the horns remind you of the neighbor dog’s ears, etc. In other words, try to guide your child towards looking at the thing that scared him in a new, less threatening, way.
- If drawing doesn’t work, take some time to make these monster puppets and then do some role-playing showing how friendly the monster really is.
That Nightmare Monster Doesn’t
Know Who He’s Messing With
Yeah. That’s right.
He doesn’t stand a chance.
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