Family, Kids & Relationships

How to help when your child’s afraid of monsters or nightmares

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Monsters under the bed and nightmares might not be real, but they sure do have a real effect on kids’ (and parents’) sleep routines! Unfortunately, these sleep disturbances might be more common now than ever—some studies have shown an increase in kids’ nightmares and night terrors during the pandemic, likely due to increased stress and enduring so much upheaval to our usual routines. 

These types of nighttime fears often seem totally irrational to adults, so it’s easy to get frustrated when all you want is for your child to sleep peacefully. But to support kids through these fears, it’s important to remember that the monsters, nightmares, or scary thoughts are very real to them. Once they’ve got you 100 percent on their side, you can fight the demons together…and eventually get some more sleep for everyone.

Here are some hacks to help with your new role as assistant monster-slayer!

Lead with comfort and empathy

What kids need most is to feel safe and loved, so when your kid cries about monsters or nightmares, start with hugs, cuddles, and soothing words like “You’re safe” and “I’m here with you.”

It may be tempting to dismiss kids’ fears by telling them that “monsters/nightmares aren’t real.” Instead, the key is to listen to their worries, no matter how silly they may seem to you. Then validate their feelings by saying, “It sounds like that was scary for you” or “Now I understand why you woke up crying.”

Let your child know that you’re there to help. In addition to assuring them that they’re safe, you can say, “We’ll figure out a way to fight off these bad dreams/scary thoughts/monsters together. We’ll come up with solutions tomorrow when we have lots of brain power.”

Brainstorm creative solutions together

If kids are insistent that the monsters are real, then help them fight magic with magic. Get creative!

A few examples to get you started:

  • Hang up a big poster with their favorite character or a picture that makes them feel safe and protected.
  • Introduce a new stuffed animal with special powers—or hold a ceremony/training to establish the protective abilities of an existing lovey.
  • Make a warning sign or booby trap that’s specifically and elaborately designed to trick/scare off the monsters.
  • Come up with a simple shape or color that’s like kryptonite for the monsters (hearts, rainbows, the color yellow, etc.) and make a line of stickers/tape on the floor that they won’t be able to cross.
  • Determine which scent (such as peppermint or coconut) will keep the monsters away, and use that type of toothpaste, soap, lotion, or shampoo every night.
  • Infuse a few special ingredients to a bottle of water (think: salt, pine needles, or herbs) to make a protective spray/sprinkle that they can use in their doorway before bed.

Involve kids in the process as much as possible—such as letting them pick out the new poster or toothpaste/lotion. Give them a sense of control, while you act as their can-do assistant.

Create a calming bedtime routine

Make sure kids aren’t staying awake late thinking scary thoughts by setting the stage for good sleep habits. First, stick to a set bedtime that allows them to get enough hours of sleep for their age.

Then, an hour before bedtime, be sure to turn off all electronics and engage them in calming activities like reading books, coloring, playing a board game, or taking a bath.

Also make sure that you’re monitoring their media usage for potentially scary content during the day. Unsupervised screen time, watching shows that aren’t age-appropriate, or even things like unwanted YouTube ads or overhearing snippets of the news could cause bad dreams or scary thoughts.

Talk about what causes nightmares

Explain to kids that dreams are in their imaginations and not real, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be scary.

Your brain re-plays and re-mixes images and feelings from the day, and bad dreams could mean that you’re worried or stressed about something. That’s why talking, reading, doing, and thinking about happy and calm things throughout the day and before bed can help you have more pleasant dreams.

Dreams and nightmares can be helpful, though, because they’re a way for your brain to test out scary or impossible things—without you having to do those things in real life!

Older kids might like to delve even more into the science of dreams and sleep. You can learn together about fascinating topics like REM sleep, lucid dreaming, and what your brain is really doing while you’re sleeping.

Face fears through creative play

Just telling kids to not think about something scary won’t work—in fact, it can have the opposite effect.

So if certain monsters or scary thoughts are hard to shake, encourage kids to draw pictures of the scary thing, write a new ending for a nightmare, or act out the story during pretend play. Being creative can help them express their feelings as well as find new solutions to combat the bad dreams.

The same applies to real-life fears and concerns. If there’s something disturbing in the news or changes in their family/school situation that could be causing nighttime anxiety and bad dreams, working it out during play time and creative pursuits is a much healthier approach than trying to ignore it.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.