As I write this, we are at the beginning of full lockdown here in the UK. Regardless of where you are reading this, your life will have been touched in some way from covid-19, social distancing, effects on workplaces, childcare etc.
This has brought about a general increase in anxiety levels in many people, parents included. I for one, sincerely hope that everyone comes out of this healthy, and ready to embrace what the world will look like.
For young children, closing schools and childcare settings is a strange situation for them. Having one or both carers at home all the time might be highly unusual and whilst most young children relish having more access to their parents, this alone can be unsettling. They may also hear (but not fully understand) the news and how we talk about it to our co-parents, friends on the phone and other adults. Children are naturally routine lovers, they like the predictability and stability of it, so not having their usual routine may also be unsettling. Missing friends, wider family members, opportunities for different types of play, and a change in the type of stimulation they normally enjoy may be keenly felt, if not expressed. They may also pick up on our anxieties about our own health, the fear of dying, financial and work worries, and any relationship challenges.
I’ve heard from many parents who have reported an increase in the number of nightmares their little ones are having. This isn’t a surprise given what our children are experiencing. They may not have the language to explain their worries, but if they are having nightmares, then there is likely to be a level of worry present – whether concious or not.
So if your child is waking with nightmares – what can you do to help them?
First, in the middle of the night, check its definitely a nightmare. In summary, if a child is waking from a nightmare, they are visibly scared, very much awake, aware of your presence and very much able to communicate with you (physically if not verbally). If your child wakes and whilst seemingly is conscious, but doesn’t respond to your presence, it is likely to be a night terror.
If it is a night terror – don’t try to wake your child as this may upset them more. Make sure they are safe, stay with them until its over and calmly put them back in their sleeping position. They won’t remember it the next day, so its best not to mention it.
If it is a nightmare – then respond straight away and go to your child. Ask them what happened, regardless of whether they are able to tell you. Its important for them to know you are listening. I like to explain dreams as ‘stories that your imagination creates when you are asleep’. This helps children to understand that it is made up, not real, and that its like a book that is now closed – the nightmare has finished. Don’t get too much into a conversation at this stage – the goal here is to reassure and resettle. Lots of physical touch helps calm the nervous system. A long hug and a kiss; then tuck them back into bed when they are happy is what I recommend. If they are toilet trained, they may wet the bed. Don’t make an issue of it, change the bed and ignore it. If it happens frequently, try putting a waterproof layer, sheet, waterproof layer, another sheet – so that you don’t have to remake the bed – just strip off the top two layers.
If the nightmare is about a monster, please try to avoid using ‘monster spray’ or looking under the bed, as this cements in your child’s mind that monsters are real and could potentially be out there.
If you want to bring your child into your bed after a nightmare, then do so. It can become a tactic, so if it is not your family’s philosophy to regularly bedshare, then make it clear it is tonight only. Children over 3 will understand this, if they may not like it. If you suspect a nightmare is not actually occuring and its a habit you’d rather not continue with – there are a number of techniques for helping toddlers to stay in bed – it isn’t the place to talk about them here, but contact me if you need advice on this.
Next day, I would recommend avoid talking directly about the nightmare unless your child brings it up. Instead, talk generally about worries, what they are, what kind of worries are normal, what worries you have (mention innocent ones like forgetting to put your pants on), and ask them what their worries may be. Can they feel them in their body somewhere? (often they may feel it in their stomach), can they draw a picture or describe its colour? Make a worry box and ask your child if they want to put their worry in there instead of in their head. Your child may be more clingy during the day. Filling up their ‘love cup’ with lots of physical hugs and short bursts of total attention can help (between conference calls!).
A night light can be useful, choose a red light as this colour doesn’t inhibit melatonin production (the sleepy hormone). Make it as low as possible. Alternatively, change the hallway light for a red bulb, and leave the door open as much as the child needs. Once they are asleep you can close the gap (but still let a little bit of light through).
There are a wealth of resources out there to help your child stay connected with their carers, educators, teachers, family and friends; and I’d encourage you to connect as much as possible to help show them that their familiar faces are still around and care about them.
Also try meditation – again, there are some great apps that you can use at bedtime and all listen to as a family when you would normally read a story.
If you’d like to talk about nightmares in more detail, then please don’t hesitate to contact me using the link above.
If you think your child’s nightmares are as a result of severe anxiety, then it is important to contact your GP for further advice.
Wishing you all a healthy and safe lockdown.