Nightmares and Night Terrors: How to help your children

Clinical Psychologist Costas Demetriou

Many children experience nightmares and night terrors, but most grow out of them. Nightmares and night terrors do not represent a cause for concern, since they do not cause any long-term psychological harm.


While in the midst of these vivid, frightening dreams, a child usually wakes up abruptly and can describe the nightmare, often in detail. Nightmares occur during the REM stage of sleep (the stage in which we dream), which typically lasts longer in the early morning hours. Approximately one in four children ages five to twelve has frequent nightmares. Nightmares do not usually cause for concern, though they may occur more often when the child feels stressed out or anxious. When a child has a nightmare, he or she typically wants to tell his or her parents about it and gain reassurance that it was just a dream and not a real occurence. Because the child may be frightened or upset by the nightmare, he or she may have trouble going back to sleep.

Night Terrors

They resemble nightmares in overdrive but are much less common. Night terrors often induce terror or panic in children, causing them to scream or shout, sleepwalk, or frantically thrash around in bed. They are sometimes caused by post-traumatic stress disorder and typically occur during the non-REM stages of sleep. In contrast to having a nightmare, a child experiencing a night terror will remain asleep, though he or she may appear to be awake. It’s difficult to awaken someone during a night terror, so simply wait it out. Night terrors can be distressing to witness but they don’t cause harm to the child. In fact, a child that has experienced a night terror the night before is unlikely to remember the horrifying event in the morning. Night terrors are most common in children ages four to eight, though they can continue into adolescence or even adulthood. The good news is: Occasional night terrors usually go away on their own.

How to help our children:

  • Establish a soothing bedtime routine and adhere to it each night. Research has shown that sleep-deprived children are more prone to nightmares, which can quickly turn into a harmful cycle: The more nightmares a child has, the more they will likely resist going to bed. To prevent this from happening, develop a soothing bedtime routine: Remove your child from all sources of media (e.g., television, phone, computer, etc.) at least one hour prior to bedtime and engage in a positive, lulling activity with them, such as reading a bedtime story together.


  • Educate your child about dreams. While adults tend to understand dreams for what they are, children frequently attach magical qualities to dreams which make them feel more frightening (for example, a child may believe dreams to be prophetic in nature). You should therefore explain to your child that dreams are just harmless thoughts and that dreaming is no more “real” than what your child imagines during playtime.


  • Teach your child relaxation strategies. If your child is apprehensive about going to bed, try teaching them to relax via deep breathing exercises (counting may help your child focus on his breathing), positive visualization, and muscle relaxation.


  • Combat recurrent nightmares by helping your child change their narrative. Simply telling your child that his recurrent, terrifying nightmare is “not real” is often unhelpful and invalidating. Instead, empower them by asking them to close their eyes and vividly imagine the storyline in their nightmare changing; for example, have them imagine that they gain magical powers and turn the terrifying monster into a tiny mouse or banish it to another dimension. If your child enjoys drawing, encourage them to sketch out their new story to help cement these happier images in their mind.


  • Provide comfort objects. Many children appreciate having a safety net of some sort, such as a flashlight within reach of the bed, a nightlight, a dream catcher (or other “magical” object), or “monster spray”. Additionally, it is often useful to provide your child with a stuffed animal; depending on your child’s nature, they may either wish to protect the stuffed animal or be protected by it.