Nightmares: When Make-Believe Is Too Real For Peaceful Sleep

Amy Rees
May 11, 2016

As adults, we often have to remind ourselves to let go, to suspend our disbelief and just go with all the wild impossibilities that pretend play posits. (Or maybe you are a clever one who already knew that fairies are real!) 

But for our kids, the line between real and imaginary is much fainter. The delight of  a classic like Where the Wild Things Are depends on this ease of imagination, this acceptance of something wild and scary and different and the peace that comes from seeing it and then returning from it. The success of the Ugly Dolls trades on the same theory. 

And then the nightmares start, and you're sure you've let this imagination stuff go too far. 

Nothing, repeat nothing, seems whimsical or creative or wonderful about a terrified little one crying in the middle of the night. What on earth can you do?

Your pediatrician may well have warned you that your 18-month-old might start showing signs of some pretty vivid dreams. She may not have mentioned, however, that those dreams might swell into full-fledged nightmares over the next few years. Further, she may not have mentioned that a preschooler's nightmare almost instantly becomes his entire family's nightmare.

Nightmares are, of course, an absolutely normal part of a child's life. Much as we might wish the fears and conflicts and struggles to play themselves out during normal business hours, the truth is that they must play themselves out whenever and however they will. Sigh. And whether your little one is adjusting to a new sibling or a new preschool or a new city or just a new day, nightmares are often a preschooler's way of making sense of it all. And it just saddens (and maddens) parents that this sense-making takes place at two o'clock in the morning. Poor sweet babes. Them, we mean. And you too.

Art to the rescue! There are things you can do to help during the daylight hours. Ask your child to draw some of the things she was worried about last night. It may be that the simple act of recreating the scary beast on paper gives your child enough control over it to ease the night troubles. Oh, and don't be reticent to bring it up and trigger a drama—your child either won't be upset by it in the day, or else she will be upset but because she was already ruminating on it even before you mentioned it. 

Ask him to act out what happened in the dream. Now, can he change the ending? Experts call this "rescripting," a phrase we Savvy parents love because there are plenty of moments in our days we'd like the chance to rescript! Draw a different monster this time—perhaps the monster turns into a nice monster. Perhaps he takes off his mask. Perhaps... well, let your little one fill in the rest. 

Or ask her to write a note to the nighttime bad guy and decorate it and put it up on her door as a Keep Out sign. 

This kind of art therapy helps a great deal, we've seen (and we've been told by the researchers). Some kids integrate magic into their art, and then that magic reappears in the nighttime to tame the bad guys again. And other kids use their drawings to grasp that the things that terrified them last night aren't real, and that's enough comfort to last until morning. Of course, like all things, there's no easy answer, and one conversation over markers and paper isn't going to ensure placid nights from now on. But talking it through and drawing it out and acting it into being do help. And for that alone we weary parents and kiddos, both, are grateful.

From the Parents

  • Peggy S. Vincent

    This is a great article. As a parent with a child who experienced nightmares/night terrors for a while, I wish I'd have known this 10 years ago. Part of the reason for starting my company,, was to help my nieces & nephews conquer their fear of the dark by making them Glow-in-the-Dark pillowcases. But this concept of art therapy is certainly something I will share with my friends and customers. Thanks! I'm glad I discovered the savvy source this morning!!

    over a year ago

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