Nightmare Nights - Help Your Tweens Cope Using Creativity

Photo by  Glen Hodson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Glen Hodson on Unsplash

It’s 3 a.m.  The sound of tiny feet shuffling across the carpet wakes you up.  Before you can open your eyes, there is a sniffle right next to your ear and you hear, “Mom, I had a bad dream again.”  You roll over and wipe the tears off the face of your child.  It’s the fourth night this week she has woken up in the middle of the night with bad dreams and there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.  You stumble back to her room with her and squeeze into the corner of her bed while she settles back down.  The only coherent thought you can manage is, “How do I get her to sleep through the night? I can’t do this much longer.” 

This was my house, every night, for close to a full year.  My daughter Molly is a creative kid with anxious tendencies.  She was 4 when the nightmares started, right in the middle of the 3-6 year age range that nightmares are reported the most.  She would show up at the side of my bed and my first thought was, “Not again.”  It became a vicious cycle of her coming into my room in the middle of the night, crying and begging me to come back to bed with her because she had a scary dream.  She always wanted to tell me about the dream before she could fall asleep and by that time, I was awake enough that I knew it would be over an hour before I could think about falling back to sleep in my own bed.  This pattern was wreaking havoc in our house, I needed help!   

I read many articles about kids and sleep habits.  A Parent’s magazine article about understanding fears discussed making children feel more safe and secure before bedtime, as many psychologists list anxiety as a root cause for nightmares.  In an article written by Reshma Memon Yaqub, anxiety expert Kristy Hagar, PhD had some suggestions.  “Be creative. Experiment with ways to help your child feel safer. For toddlers, the more visual the strategy, the better. If he's afraid of being sucked down the bathtub drain, cover it with a washcloth or an upside-down cup, says Dr. Hagar.”

Be creative? I accidentally put salt instead of sugar in my coffee one morning.  I frequently walked into various rooms in my house and had no idea what I needed in that room.  I had no creative ideas at all.  My research found lots of articles that encouraged parents to be creative when settling their children down at night but did not give many specific examples for those of us who are exhausted and out of ideas. 

Then, I sleepily stumbled upon something that actually worked.  It was not an overnight solution but the time invested in doing it gave Molly and me both back our sleep.  It also empowered her to take control of her nights and feel stronger and more brave each day.  She is 11 now and still has bad dreams and thoughts, especially with puberty kicking into high gear, but now uses this strategy to battle away the bad stuff.  

Here are the steps I took at bedtime, in the middle of the night and the next day to turn our situation around.  They are simple and have made both of my children happier and stronger.

Help Your Child Plan Their Dreams

Whatever your bedtime routine includes, make dream planning a part of it.  Our routine was 3 books and a joke.  One night, during a particularly difficult week of nightly wake-ups, I asked Molly what she was going to dream about that night.  She couldn’t think of an answer.  I suggested she dream about My Little Ponies (her favorite show) and she said she was afraid that the ponies would turn into monsters.  She was already worrying about the night, already letting that anxiety build up. So, I asked her where she would go if she could go anywhere in the world and she said she would go someplace that she built herself. 

In that moment, Mollyland was born. 

Each night, we would take time to plan her dreams.  She would tell me new things that she imagined to be in Mollyland. She had complete control.  She created buildings, new species of animals, glitter rainstorms followed by rainbows and many magical adventures.  Years later, when my son needed to dream plan, I suggested a beach full of puppies (his favorite animal) and he loved the idea.  We talked about what the puppies might look like, if they were playing in the ocean or the sand, if they were fat or skinny, fluffy or short-haired and about he would be playing with them.  If you are struggling to come up with new ideas for dreams, try these dream cards, originally created by a father and daughter during a joint art project. 

Teach Your Child to Go Back to Their Dream Plan After a Nightmare

This is a two step process. 

  1. Deep breathing is the best way to calm our heads so when your child wakes up (and wakes you up), have him take three deep breaths in and out to calm the tears.  Do this every time he wakes up and also during the day when trying to calm down from the tantrums that sleepless nights inevitably bring. 

  2. Take him back to the dreams you built together.  Help him visualize where he was when the night started.  Use your most soothing voice to take him back to that place that felt so good to talk about before bedtime.  Carry him back into that feeling of joy and comfort.  He will eventually be able to do this without your help. 

Ask Your Child to Try to Stay in Bed All Night

I know, this one sounds like a pipe dream, but once he is getting used to dream planning and going back to the good dreams in the middle of the night, the next step is to encourage him to do it on his own. 

Be a cheerleader.  Tell him you know he can do it on his own and remind him if he has a bad dream to try and chase it away with the good one before getting out of bed.  It won’t work at first.  Tell him not to worry, he can do it!  You know he can! 

Use Your Reward System

Most parents I know have devised some way to include positive reinforcement for good behavior.  We have the six star system in our house.  It is never used for punishment so if you earn a star, you can never lose it.  Stars are given out for any number of things like getting dressed without being asked, brushing teeth and getting out the door quickly, being nice to your brother all day long, the small victories in a day at home.  The kids aren’t punished for not getting dressed without asking but definitely rewarded if they do.  If the kids get to six stars in a day, they can have their iPads. 

Any time my daughter or son reported a tough night that they handled on their own, I gave them a star for it.  It was never a big deal if they needed me but definitely cause to celebrate if they were able to stay in their beds and turn the night around for themselves.  

It took a month with my daughter and two months with my son for this to work.  But given that we had been struggling for close to a year and I have friends who report years of sleepless nights, I believe the time is worth it.  This strategy can be used on kids of any age.  Despite nightmares being prevalent between ages 3-6, pubescent hormones can also trigger bad dreams and sleepless nights. The best thing to come out of this has not been the sleep.  It is the pride in the faces of my kids when they know they have used their own powerful minds to take control of their nights, like the valiant hero who has just bested her enemy.  I always remind them of how brave it is to fight through the fear and keep going to their puppy beaches and imagined lands. 

My son is only recently through it but our nights have been good and he still gets stars for planning his dreams and staying in bed.   

It has been years since I did this with my daughter and on tough days, she still uses visualization and dream planning to get herself to sleep.  Start these dream planning steps with your kids tonight and let the sweet dreams begin! 


Amanda Leshowitz is a writer and queen of a household that includes three unpredictable kids, one fluffy dog and one partner in crime.  Her love of theatre and books has led her through a career in arts education at Emerson College and Walnut Hill School for the Arts. When she isn’t writing for her business, Creative Candor Writing Studio, she runs a sexuality education workshop for teenagers and has a lot of hope for this generation of kids to make healthy choices.  Her biggest life joys are spending time with her kids and pup, travelling with her husband, hiding away with a good book, and theatre of any kind. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @CCWritingStudio

PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.