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How Can I Help My Kid Cope with Nightmares?

Updated: Feb 25

By Melissa Grace

“Help! A monster is after me!”

It’s 2 a.m. and your child is freaking out, terrified by a nightmare. How do you help her process her dream? Follow the 4 Rs: reassurance, rescripting, rehearsal, and resolution. It’s a protocol Drs. Alan Siegel and Kelly Bulkeley outline in their book Dreamcatching.

Here’s what it looks like.

Reassurance A nightmare can be traumatic for a little kid. Validating a child’s feelings and letting them know they are not alone is very important. So is approaching the dream with unconditional acceptance, which not only validates your child’s feelings and supports their self-esteem, it also opens the door to creatively exploring and working with the dream.

Rescripting Children have incredible imaginations. And, what’s more, they easily believe in what they envision. Rescripting takes advantage of a child’s impressionable nature and uses it for the good. It’s “like assertiveness training for the imagination,” Siegel and Bulkeley write. When children rescript dreams, they imagine different plots and/or endings.

Part of this process may be the use of imaginary magical tools, the variety of which is limitless. For instance, when a six-year-old little friend of mine had a dream about a bad creature trying to hurt her, I asked her if there was some kind of magic object that could help her. “A wand,” she said. “How will it help you?” I asked. “I’ll use it to make the bad creature go away,” she replied. And in her mind’s eye, she did just that. When I asked her if she still felt afraid, she chirped “Nope,” and that was the end of that. Kids are quite resilient when it comes to recouping from nightmares. They just need a caring adult to help them out.


Rehearsing Nightmares don’t exist in a vacuum. They serve a purpose: to let the dreamer, and in a child’s case, a parent, know that something is wrong. It may be that there has been a sudden change in the child’s environment; the two biggies are usually a new sibling or school. But there could be a less dramatic change, such as a new teacher, or an upcoming event—a dentist appointment or a visit with a distant relative—that makes a child anxious, too. Also loss of any kind, big or small, can be overwhelming for a child. So a nightmare arrives to let the parent know that their kid isn’t coping well.

Rescripting may make a child feel better, but it doesn’t address what’s really upsetting them. Rehearsing different solutions to a nightmare’s threats, however, can help empower children to face real-life situations. Siegel and Bulkeley use the example of a seven-year-old boy who, sensitive to peer rejection, had reoccurring dreams about playmates excluding and, at times, rejecting him. In play therapy, the boy created magical tools that helped him act out different ways to approach the kids rejecting him in his dreams. He even had imaginary conversations with the dream-kids. In the end, this repeated rehearsal helped him to confront his social fears and make friends at school.

Resolution Sometimes a child’s nightmare reflects a deeper psychological issue that must be resolved. Siegel and Bulkeley give the example of a nine-year-old child who had nightmares when his dad left on work trips. In one of his recurring nightmares, the boy would try to shout for his father but found himself unable to speak. Rescripting kept the nightmare from reoccurring, but it wasn’t until the parents made an effort to keep father and son in contact while dad was away, that the source of the boy’s nightmares—his fear of abandonment—truly resolved. 

Books on Dreams

For Kids

Terry and Eric Fan, Ocean Meets Sky (Simon & Schuster, 2018). 

Angel Morgan, PhD, Dreamer’s Powerful Tiger (The DreamBridge, 2019). 

Giselle Potter, Tell Me What to Dream About (Penguin Random House, 2015).

Benjamin Alire Sáenz, A Perfect Season for Dreaming/Un tiempo perfecto para soñar (Cinco Puntos Press, 2008). 

For Parents

Denyse Beaudet, PhD, Dreamguider (Hampton Roads, 2008).

Kelly Bulkeley and Patricia M. Bulkley, Children’s Dreams (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).

Jean Campbell and Clare R. Johnson, eds., Sleep Monsters and Super Heroes (Praeger, 2016).

Article Source: Dreamcatching: Every Parent’s Guide to Exploring and Understanding Children’s Dreams and Nightmares by Alan Siegel, PhD, and Kelly Bulkeley, PhD (Three Rivers Press, 1998). 

Above article, by Melissa Grace, originally published by Sonoma Family Life magazine.

Photo by Tomasz Stroka

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