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Getting to the Root of Fear and Bad Dreams & Nightmares

Getting to the Root of Fear and Bad Dreams

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

My 5 and a half year old is going through an awful bedtime stage that is starting to edge past “phase,” and become an unpleasant way of life. Up until now, we’ve always had a pretty easy go of it at bedtime, he doesn’t fight going up, doesn’t repeatedly get up needing stuff, just bedtime routine, lights out, sleep.-until recently.

It all started with the Grinch…a few days before Christmas, I let him watch the Grinch CARTOON. Immediately after viewing, he declared it great, and requested that we watch it every Christmas. At bedtime it was a different story. Tears, coming out of his room saying he was scared, etc., etc. We tried talking about it, pointing out that the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes by the end and all the Who’s had a great Christmas, but reason was useless in the face of his irrational fear. We talked about it during the day away from bedtime when his anxiety wouldn’t be on high, we tried reassuring at bedtime, but it just kept going, to the point that he was afraid to go to his room by himself in broad daylight.

Over the Christmas break, we gave in a lot and let him “sleep over” in our bed. At the end of Christmas break we got strict about it-I’m not proud but there was some exasperated yelling to knock it off and just go to sleep already. And he cried himself to sleep a couple nights and things got back to normal. Then he had a bad dream about Jaba the Hut. (He’s never seen any of the Star Wars movies, just knows it from Angry Birds, Legos, and videos snippets of those animated shows.) So the cycle starts repeating itself again until we get hard and tell him that all the Star Wars-related books, apps, etc. are going away unless he shows he’s old enough to handle it.

So he pulls it together for a couple of nights and then smartly figuring that blaming his fear on Star Wars will get his favorite stuff taken away, he starts transferring his fear everywhere else. He saw a Muppets commercial on regular Disney with a bad/scary frog (I still have NO idea WTH that is all about-I’ve never seen the commercial and can’t find it online), something he saw at school on apple tv about the scary Disney castle, Mater turns into a bat during the “Heavy Metal Mater” Mater tale, etc. EVERYTHING.

And now it’s not just bedtime. Now, he’s getting up at 1, 2, 3 in the morning saying he had a bad dream and wanting to get into my bed. Which I’ve always allowed because 1. All it requires is that I roll over and go right back to sleep, 2. I remember my mom not being particularly sympathetic – you got 5 minutes in her bed and then kicked out. I spent many nights in my closet with the light on rereading Charlotte’s Web. So I always said I would never make him go back to bed scared. And until now, when it was a rare single night every few months and then done, no big deal. Now that it is becoming a way of life, it has got to stop. However, I’m very torn about it. It’s one thing to consciously work himself into a lather at bedtime, but I feel like I’m punishing him for something he can’t control when he’s asleep and has a bad dream.

Throughout all this, we’ve instituted some crutches with limited success, a CD player so that he can listen to happy songs as he falls asleep, a flashlight by his pillow in case he gets scared (on top of the regular dreamlight, projector nightlight and other small nightlight). Nothing lasts more than a night.

A few days ago, I instituted an incentive. He’s been agitating to update his “babyish” Cars-themed room for a while and I told him I wasn’t going to change it to Star Wars until we made it through two straight weeks without any nighttime shenanigans. (For the record, Star Wars means tiefighter, xwing and may the force be with you decals, and a lampshade covered in fabric with good characters-NO scary characters.) We made a chart and I asked him what he needed to help make it happen. He requested another night light, so I swapped out his lamp bulb for a low-watt green one that gives a muted glow without making the room too bright and keeping him too awake.

Bedtime has gone okay, but the coming into my room has not stopped. Last night, I made him go back to his room, told him to turn on his green light, music and flashlight and go back to sleep. FOUR times he came in between 2 and 5 saying it wasn’t working and I sent him back to bed every time. He was asleep when I went to get him up after 6 am but his music was still playing meaning he’d restarted it sometime in the last hour.

We’ve always been very careful about NOT letting him watch age-inappropriate stuff, our TV is literally always on Disney Jr, Sprout or Nick Jr. He’s not a particularly fearful or anxious kid in general except for during the inevitable perilous part of DISNEY movies he gets anxious and we have to talk him down that it’s going to be okay in the end. We purposely waited till he was old enough to appreciate the story lines before we started letting him watch movies and now I’m worried that we’ve missed the chance to make it no big deal. On the one hand, I’ve been conscious of never wanting him to be unfazed by violence, on the other I wonder if we’ve done him a disservice by making him overly afraid now.

The nighttime misery is bleeding over into daytime. He’s short on sleep, so he’s cranky, sensitive and tearful during the day now. I’m short on sleep and patience for the crying over nothing (I wanted my bath to be early early, not just a little early).

He’s an only child, he’s had no major changes in his routine or his home life. I’ve considered that all of this is some other anxiety manifesting itself, but I can’t imagine what the root cause would be. There are no problems at school that I’m aware of (he likes it there, isn’t trying to avoid going, it’s a highly structured private daycare and there’d be little opportunity for bullying or something without teachers seeing it). There’s no trusted family friend that he’s around alone that could be god forbid abusing him. I just am at a complete loss.

Sleepless in Cinci

This is very very very very very very (BREATHES) very very very normal. So, so normal.

And I say this as a parent who HAS let her kids watch Star Wars and Harry Potter and just about every Pixar/Disney/Dreamworks movie that comes along and looks like something I could sit through without chewing my own arm off. Only to have my oldest child get spooked by the sight of the Hemlock Grove poster in our Netflix queue, or (not making this up) a vaguely ominous looking illustration about “bad” contractors on the cover of our Angie’s List catalog. (And Halloween decorations! Oh God, even the most innocent and cartoon-y Halloween decorations set him off like nothing else this past October.)

And once the cycle of anxiety begins, everything becomes scary. Movies they’ve watched multiple times without incident, TV aimed at toddlers, an out-of-context picture in a book, a commercial they saw with the sound off. (For the record, it sounds like your son saw the trailer for the new Muppets movie — Muppets Most Wanted. There’s a Kermit lookalike as the villain.)

It’s so very common at your son’s age because the lines between real and imaginary are still not clearly delineated in his mind, but he’s old enough to grasp that yes, the real world does indeed contain “bad” and “scary” things. Bad guys are real, car accidents and fires are real, dying is real, etc. Real things that are bad can happen to mommies and daddies, and there are bad things that mommies and daddies can’t stop from happening to little kids. These are the fears he’s trying to work through and articulate — things like the Grinch and Mater turning into a bat are more like symbolic conduits, like being afraid of ghosts when you’re actually afraid of death itself.

There are a few ways to break the cycle. First, do NOT treat his fears like a behavior problem. No incentives, no punishments. He has no control over this, and like anxiety in grown-ups, the more he fights it — the more he tries to please you or earn that Star Wars bedroom — the worse it’s going to get. Fear is not a “bad” feeling. Fear is actually a very useful, helpful feeling! (Think back to when he was a baby or young toddler and had no fear or understanding of stuff like gravity, stairs or the hot stove. Sometimes the ability to feel fear is what keeps our dumb species alive.)

Second — and this is advice I was reminded of by commenters on my own blog when I wrote about Noah developing a terrible fear of Voldemort, despite Harry Potter being one of his favorite things of all time (mostly the Lego game version, but we did let him watch a handful of the movies) — remember that while the “stuff” he’s afraid of isn’t “real,” his fear is very, very real to him. You can talk about real vs. not real until you’re blue in the face, but sometimes by simply acknowledging that yes, that IS scary, I understand why that scared you is actually much more helpful and calming to a scared child. I acknowledge your feelings. I understand your feelings. You are entitled to have those feelings. And so on.

Third, refocus the target of your “WE MUST ELIMINATE THE SCARY THINGS!” wrath. If you accept the idea that the age-appropriate or kid-friendly media he’s complaining about at night is more of a stand-in for deeper, real-world fears, try to figure out if he’s getting even a passing exposure to stuff like the news or adult discussions of current events or “bad things happening for real.” Listening to NPR or the news in the car, for example. Him peeking on your laptop while you’re reading about a school shooting and seeing a picture of distressed-looking kids/parents, or overhearing you and your partner talking about someone you know with cancer or a natural disaster overseas…or surprising you post-bedtime while you’re watching The Walking Dead. A lot of times when that stuff happens, we adults tend to react by shooing kids away or turning the TV/radio off super-abruptly and not talking to them about what they saw or heard. But they’ve managed to absorb something — something they don’t understand, but we’ve just given them a HUGE signal that whatever it was, it was bad or scary. Their little imaginations take it from there, and invariably make it a million times worse than if we’d just taken a minute to talk to them about it. (I’m so guilty of this one, BTW.)

On the other hand, it’s ENTIRELY POSSIBLE that you might never really figure out what he’s “really” afraid of or where he was exposed to “it.” There might not be any real media-based culprit here. He’s just getting older, and this is just part of getting older. People get hurt. People die. Kids die. Sometimes the bad guys win. It’s just a rough phase, especially for super-sensitive kids.

As an extension of the third point: If he’s scared of Star Wars, let him play Star Wars. Don’t take whatever he’s dreaming about away, but encourage him to act out his dream…along with other scary, bad scenarios with his toys. That’s what they are there for. Let him play “bad guys” and let him experiment with death and — yes, even some violence. Again, this is what toys and imaginative play is for. You’ve clearly got a sensitive, gentle little soul on your hands. I think it would be super helpful for him to engage in some quality imaginative play where he controls the narrative and can experiment with darker plotlines and unhappy endings. (And then feeling empowered to reverse the bad ending with a childish deus ex machina about magic medicine making everybody all better.) Get down on the floor with him with some Star Wars figures — bad guys included; even if it’s just the Angry Birds versions — and let him make the decisions about what happens to the good guys. No judgement. I promise you, even if his toys regularly meet horrible, gruesome ends for awhile, you are not raising a sociopath who is completed desensitized to violence. Quite the opposite, really.

As for the “correct” response for the night wakings, this is where I’ve always been really, really indulgent with my children. If they have a bad dream, they can spend the night with us. My parents had the same rule and it always made me feel loved, safe and secure, even though I’m sure it was a pain in the ass for them. But I do remember that knowing I could go to them really helped me get to sleep without worrying or obsessing over my own various fears — the dark! bad dreams! volcanoes erupting in the back yard! thinking about demons and then being possessed by a demon omg I just thought about demons! (I was a weird kid.) So when one of our boys comes in with a nightmare, we don’t talk about the dream at all, beyond whatever brief description they want to offer. Usually just “I had a bad dream” is all I let them say — then I lift up the covers, let them in and that’s it. If they do want to talk, we give hugs, we acknowledge that wow, that DOES sound like a scary dream, and usually try to mumble something about waking up being the end of a dream and it’s over and we’ll keep the dream from coming back zzzzzz. Basically, like when they were babies, we do whatever we can to get them back to sleep as soon as possible. And whatever we can do to keep them from rehashing/dwelling on the nightmare — at least until morning, when we’re in better shape to respond and redirect.

Obviously, you’re dealing with something chronic and repeated, so I understand why letting him sleep with you probably doesn’t sound like the greatest way to break the habit. So I’d recommend focusing on reducing his anxiety overall, during the day, with more positive, nurturing strategies. (Even though OMG, I know you’re all so tired and sick of this.) Get rid of the incentive chart. Give him back confiscated toys.  I would probably try limiting screen time overall (TV and phones/apps together, like no more than an hour a day total), if only to focus on encouraging imaginative scenario play with the character action figures rather than passive consumption. When he does watch TV, seek out episodes of shows that deal with fears and bad dreams. (He might think they are babyish, but Blue’s Clues and Mister Rodgers’ both have excellent episodes about bad dreams and being afraid. Check YouTube or Amazon streaming.) Give him the bedroom he wants, one that he’ll want to go to and spend time in, no strings attached. Empower him to make decisions about every aspect of it, so he feels more in control of his environment.

Limit the dream/fear rehashing at night, since that’s when they feel the most scary and powerful. During the day, acknowledge his fears as real and let him talk about them — without trying to madly logic your way through them in order to convince him not to be afraid anymore, as if through sheer will. Fear is okay. Fear is natural and necessary. Anxiety is not. Anxiety can be the result of fighting fear instead of acknowledging it and finding a productive way to deal with it.

(For books, by the way, I highly recommend Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. It helped us realize that many of the things we did and said to “help” were pretty much having the opposite effect. Whoops.)

(Also, this one might seem weird, but I saw the [admittedly not amazing] Where the Wild Things Are movie when Noah first started showing signs of anxiety and odd fears. Watching Max work through his very real fears of growing up and coming to terms with the fragility and danger of the world with the Wild Things left me humbled and gave me a profound sense of empathy for what my child was going through. Growing up is scary. It’s easy to forget that, once you’re mostly on the other side of the process.)

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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