And They Slept Happily Ever After: Using Art to Tame Nightmares

Amy Rees
May 25, 2018

Your pediatrician may well have warned you that your eighteen-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 child's nightmare almost instantly becomes his entire family's nightmare. You may all need some peaceful sleep at this point.

We sure do.

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 child'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.

And again, art to the rescue! There are things you can do to help during the long 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 all season. 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.


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