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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

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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  • bessie.viola

    February 10, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    YES to everything that Amy said. I found myself recognizing a LOT of this letter in shenanigans from my daughter over the past year (she’ll be 6 this week). For us, it helped to simply validate her fear and be truthful. If she was worried something was in the closet, she knew she could come and get us and we’d help her check it out. That way she could face her fear and be heard. I also got into the habit of helping her redirect her thinking – when she had a “bad dream” I’d cuddle up in bed with her and let her tell me all about it, and then we’d talk about things that were better to think of: swimming, birthday parties, my parents’ puppy, and so on… We also say a few prayers sometimes, since saying the rosary is something that’s still comforting to me when I’m afraid. The point, I think, is to give them skills to deal with fear – and Amy covered that excellently here. I hope you have some better nights soon!

  • BB

    February 10, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    One thing that has worked well for us when my son wakes from a nightmare is planting what we call a good dream seed.  I’ve found through experience that often the last thing on his mind before he goes to sleep can help to set the tone for his dreams. So, if he wakes in the night we, together, think of a happy memory, or something we are looking forward to like a birthday party or play date with a friend and make up a short little story right then and there about it.  And when I say short, I mean, less than a minute. This, combined with hugs and reassurance seems to really reassure him but also to help him take control of his fear and redirect his thoughts.  Maybe it could help you too!  

  • Ally

    February 10, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    My kids very seldom wake up from bad dreams, but when they do we usually just go into their rooms. I always tell them since they had a bad dream we need to turn over their pillow and that makes the bad dreams disappear. For some reason they believe that and usually go right back to sleep. 

  • Allison

    February 10, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    Long time reader, first time commenter here. My 4.5 year old was having the same sort of issues recently.  For her, we were able to identify the cause was likely rooted in our impending move (which didn’t happen, but that’s another story for another time).  Two things, though, that we think finally helped after trying all the same sorts of things you did: 1) we started going with her back to her bed until she fell asleep instead of letting her invade our space and 2) we started telling her what time we’d come back up to check on her.  For the second, as she got more comfortable, we’d tell her a longer and longer time and while she still asks for “her numbers”, she’s usually asleep before our first check-in.  It may not fix your problems, but it just might!

  • alexa

    February 10, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    My 5 year old has one of those brains that doesn’t turn off once it starts going at night. So her sister will wake her up and she’ll be WIDE awake for HOURS. With our pediatricians approval I’ve started giving her a little melatonin if she wakes up in the middle of the night and is clearly going to be up for hours. It really helps her relax and get sleepy again. I don’t do this all the time, just when I can tell that her brain is ON.

    We haven’t had to deal with too many nightmares (knock on wood) but she told me about one that she had last week where Swiper was swiping everything and not stopping. So sometimes it doesn’t matter how child friendly it is their little brains need to work things out. Hope things get better soon!

  • mjh

    February 10, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    Rather than fight the constant wakeups from my brother and I showing up in their bedrooms to tell them we were scared, my parents laid out sleeping bags on the floor and told us to lie there if we were afraid. Which we did, for several years (!) I think. But the entire family got sleep, we weren’t scared, and eventually we started sleeping in our own beds.

    • Shera

      February 10, 2014 at 5:46 pm

      My parents did the same thing. They called it a snuggle-sack, and we were always welcome to roll it out on the floor beside their bed. We also used it for watching tv in the living room. It was very comforting, but we all got our sleep.

    • MR

      February 10, 2014 at 8:40 pm

      My 2.5 year old has been coming in and waking me up lately at least once a night for several weeks. She comes in and simply says she wants to get in our bed. She is horrible about kicking us and keeping us up, so we don’t let her sleep in our bed, but she is keeping up this night waking and redirecting her back to bed has not been helping. I think I am going to try this – set up a sleeping bag for her. We wake up so much earlier than the kids we usually try to avoid having them in our room at all, but it might just be worth it if we can sleep through the night.

  • Meera

    February 10, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    My kids are too young for this, but my toddler gets night terrors which take aaaages to resettle from. Anyway, when we converted the guest room to the new baby room, we transferred him from the cot to a double bed. The double bed means one of us can go into him and lie down with him in comfort and go to sleep with him if necessary. It sounds crazy indulgent but it’s been really handy as well as having room for all the toys and books. Just letting you know in case it’s an option for the room makeover.

  • Karen

    February 10, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    I hate to be “that person” but something about this letter just super rubbed me the wrong way. Like the OP is irritated that her kid is causing her to have to actually parent him. The language sounds really adversarial and the approach sounds similar to how I’d handle a management problem at work – she “gave in,” he “pulls it together,” there are “crutches” and “incentives,” he is manipulative (“smartly figuring out…”), “what do you need to make it happen?”, etc.

    My kids are in daycare too (fairly structured as most are, and also private, not one of those unacceptable public places, if you get my drift) and we’ve come to realize that they really need free time at home to let other parts of their minds develop. They also need time with us, as we do with them, to foster the parent-child bond and trust relationship, an opportunity to just be themselves around us without being shuttled in and out of the door, through dinner and bedtime. Poor kid. Sounds really stressful.

    • MR

      February 10, 2014 at 8:37 pm

      I didn’t get that feel from it at all. Rather, I got from it that she was feeling like she had caused this problem by giving in, and she thought it was a simple matter of him dawdling or trying to delay going to bed-type thing. That dawdling kind of behavior that keeps you from getting sleep is ALWAYS aggravating.I think Amy was spot on when she pointed out that the OP needs to change her perspective and start acting like these fears are real. Because, I think we have all been there, where we assumed our child was making something up, and then we realized later that they weren’t. And that’s ok too. We are all human after all. This is just one of those times where OP needs to reframe this. This isn’t her son deliberately trying to keep her awake. This is a scared little kid, who needs some reassurance and validation of his feelings.

    • IrishCream

      February 12, 2014 at 1:49 pm

      What I take from this letter is that this mom is concerned about her child, and concerned about the family as a whole. She may be wording differently from how you might, but it sounds like she’s doing her best.

  • Meghan

    February 10, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    I am surprised you didn’t mention this, but Ferber has a whole chapter on helping your anxious child sleep in his own bed. So definitely recommend getting, “Solving your Child’s Sleep Problems” It gives a very nice plan on gently getting the child over his/her own fears and sleeping in their own room.

  • Becky

    February 10, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    I’m not a parent myself, but I think Amy gave great advice, considering my experience as a child. I’m in my mid-30s but can still remember some of my dreams from my childhood, as I frequently had (and still do) very vivid nightmares.

    My parents also allowed me to come into their room when they happened and never made me tell them about the dream. Some kids may want to talk about them, but that was the last thing I wanted to do.

    I also want to second that while sometimes dreams are triggered by media or specific life issues, I think that sometimes a dream is just a dream – and it’s better than to acknowledge that and the fear that goes along with it, rather than assuming we can somehow fix it. While friends always seemed to dream about imaginary things like monsters and dragons, my dreams were always very realistic (my home being broken into, being kidnapped, etc.) I wasn’t watching scary stuff on TV, and was never anxious about it during the daytime, but my brain’s ability to put together lengthy storylines in my sleep sometimes terrified me – and it was really comforting to have parents who accepted it without judgment or overanalysis.

  • Heather

    February 11, 2014 at 10:41 am

    I could have written your letter 2 years ago when my son was 5.5. He saw a movie on TV that he had seen a few times before, but this time something happened and he was *terrified* of it. My son was never the best sleeper, but after seeing the movie, bedtime and sleeping became a disaster. It would take him hours to fall asleep- and by the end of the night someone was in tears (usually me and my son), my husband and I were annoyed/exasperated and yelling (at each other and my son, I’m sad to admit) and none of it helped. My sweet 5 year old was getting 5 hours of sleep on a good night because if he did wake up in the middle of the night we’d go through the whole process again.

    It got to the point where our lives revolved around our son and his sleep. We’d be exhausted all day and come dinner time, we’d all start dreading the thought of bedtime. It was awful- I remember going out with my girlfriends and just crying because I was so tired and so frustrated and so so sad for my son who couldn’t turn his brain off.

    I turned our lives upside down for 6 months trying to figure out what was causing this- there had to be a reason. But there wasn’t – he’s just an anxious kid. Finally we took him to a therapist. Best. Decision. Ever. She gave us techniques to help him, but most importantly gave my SON coping skills he could use any time to help him redirect his thoughts. I’m not saying your son is as extreme as my son, but if this normal phase turns into something above and beyond what’s normal, don’t hesitate to seek help. My biggest regret is that it took us 6 months to reach out.

    My son is now 7 and he’ll always be anxious- but things are so much better now! Bedtimes aren’t a battle anymore and when he is scared/nervous, we know how to work together to get things under control quickly.

  • Christina

    February 11, 2014 at 10:49 am

    This probably sounds silly, but we have delt with our 3.5 year olds fears by introducing him to superheroes and role playing. He has a Thor hammer and cape, a captain america shield, an iron man mask, and a toy bow and arrow for Hawkeye, and if he gets scared of something we just get one of the props and he pretends to shoot the “bad guy”, or “grumpy bear” or “scary crocidile” with an arrow, or smash it with Thor’s hammer, or pretends to throw Captain America’s shield at it, or shoots it with light from his hand like Iron Man and wins the day! Something about role playing as a superhero empowers him, and he can make it through the scary part of any kids movie, or the after math of a bad dream by role playing as one of his heros and solving the problem for himself. He also loves it when I pretend to be afraid of something so he can save me. His fears are real, but he also can have the power to beat them with a little imagination.

    • Jennifer

      February 12, 2014 at 12:37 pm

      When I read the original letter my first thought was of the scene in Patch Adams where he his roommate won’t get up and go to the bathroom because of the squirrels (I think that’s what it was) that would attack him when he got out of bed.  Instead of trying to tell him there were no squirrels Patch embraced his delusion and helped him fight them and gave the guy the support he needed to get up and go.  I think this is exactly what you’ve done here, and I think its a great way to help a child through this.  (Luckily I haven’t gotten to this phase yet with our daughter)  To this day I still tell people that teddy bears (and stuffed animals in general) ward off evil spirits.  I didn’t need to fight anything off, just knowing I was ‘protected’ worked for me 🙂

  • Elissa

    February 11, 2014 at 11:21 am

    There’s a chapter discussing night wakings in “123 Magic” that I remember thinking was helpful. As others have suggested, the author recommended allowing the child to sleep on the floor in your room. This addresses the anxiety without providing an alternative (your bed) that is more appealing than their own bed. Good luck!

  • Lynn

    February 11, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    I am so glad you said fear is not a behavior problem! It really isn’t. Anyone who thinks otherwise should read “The Gift of Fear,” because that’s what fear is–a gift to alert us to potential harm. This is not something you want to squash in your child; it is something he needs to learn how to deal with, and he will as he discovers the lines of reality. Amy definitely has it right.

  • Erinwithans

    February 11, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    I’m not a mother, but I was a kid who had very vivid nightmares around that age (which I remember quite well, nearly 30 years later), and I found two things really helped me:

    1) What a commenter above called a “Good Dream Seed” – I ended up (I think with help of my mom) having a kind of checklist I’d go through to make sure I wouldn’t have another bad dream once I woke up (which I still use if I have nightmares as an adult). I would change something – flip over into a different sleeping position, kick blankets off, whatever, and then pick something happy, and think about that, and whenever I caught myself thinking about something else, I’d pull my brain back to the happy thing, until I fell asleep.

    2) Lucid dreaming. It sounds a little weird, but it’s actually really easy, especially when you’re a kid. I used to have a recurring nightmare that a giant stepped on my house and ate my brother and our friends and I. One night I had this dream while a friend was over, and the friend just looked at me and said, well, next time how about you change it? And the next time I had that recurring dream, I recognized it while still dreaming, and changed it so the giant took us out to ice cream and I never had that dream again. Might help if there’s some kind of “if you dream Jabba the Hutt comes looking for you” recognizable moment he can fix on, and know isn’t true. I think playing through things in the way Amy suggested could be really helpful, for similar reasons.

  • MoBedazzler

    February 12, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    Whenever my daughter is afraid before bed, often because she gets a spooky image or phrase stuck in her head on a loop. I tell her, very seriously, under no circumstances to think about unicorns farting rainbows, or bunnies eating yellow daffodils. The ridiculous seems to derail and replace the negative loop. “It’s like trying not to think of a green elephant while taking medicine”

    • EMc

      February 22, 2016 at 4:51 pm

      Oh my goodness, I am going to file this away for later! I just love the humour by ridiculous approach, “unicorns farting rainbows” in a serious voice? That is pure gold, thank you for this!

  • EK

    February 12, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    As a child I was never invited in to my parents’ bed. I’m sure they did their best to comfort me when I had bad dreams, but if my memory is correct (and sure, it might not be), I always had to go back to my room and tough it out. Let me tell you, I’ve had periods of time when I’ve been scared at night my entire life. So, yes yes yes to everything Amy said.

  • OP

    February 13, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Hi Everyone,
    Sleepless in Cinci here. Thank you Amy for the calming advice and everyone else for the (mostly) supportive comments. I’m happy to report since submitting the letter we’ve made some progress and I think all the feedback here will help us get the rest of the way there. 🙂
    I think it was a bit of a revelation to me that it’s normal for kids to get suddenly freaked out by things that are totally familiar and/or age appropriate. That’s why they call them “irrational“ fears, I guess. I tend to be a pretty linear/rational thinker and thought if I could just ferret out the root cause, I could fix everything. Turns out the root problem is probably just growing up. 🙂 Now that Amy mentions it, there have been a couple of completely out of the blue comments about how much he will miss me when I go to Heaven. So I’m guessing Amy is right and he’s just trying to sort out how this big crazy scary world all works.
    While I recognize that the anxiety and fear are real, I also want to give him the tools to effectively deal with the anxiety and not be limited by it. 1. It’s obviously no fun for anybody at bedtime at our house the way it is now and 2. Out there in the real world, bad things do happen (like people who don’t know him passing judgment and saying snide things to him) and other kids can smell fear and exploit it. So like an infant, my goal has been find that fine line between meeting his needs and teaching him to self-soothe, so to speak.
    Unfortunately, all of the things we had been trying weren’t working-they were much more numerous than listed in my original letter. We tried both tangible things like the additional nightlights and music and the intangible reassurances and redirection suggestions, like trying to harness the power of Star Wars and using the force to fight off bad dreams for instance. We’d also talked to his teachers and pediatrician. I was kicking around the idea of a “bad dream off spray” like the monster repellents I’ve seen popping up around with a friend who suggested a magic potion bedtime milk. A package of strawberry Quick plus a new label I whipped up and “Strawberry Sweet Dreams Milk” was born.
    Like the good dream seed BB suggested and turning over the pillow Ally suggested, it provides sort of a tangible outside force that’s warding off the bad dreams for him. We sprinkle just a enough into a little glass of milk to make it slightly pink with his snack, so he’s not going to bed all hopped up on sugar. After we’ve gone through our usual bedtime routine, I spend an extra couple quiet minutes in there talking to him about how the milk is spreading all through his body to bring him sweet dreams, talking about something pleasant to focus on and reassuring him that mommy and daddy are just downstairs. As Allison suggested, I’ve also been giving him a specific time frame for when I was going to check on him (instead of just in a little while when I go to bed). I kept it short the first few nights so he’d still be awake and be reassured that I was checking on him as promised.
    It’s been about 2 weeks now and we’re getting largely back to normal-bedtime is calm and pleasant and he’s asleep in under 20 minutes, with no more night waking. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for other signs he’s having trouble dealing with confusing scary real world stuff and checking out the books recommended here.
    I have to add a PS to the one not supportive commenter, I just can’t let some of the assumptions made lie there (I’d never make it as a popular blogger who gets frequently trolled)…1. Being so concerned about helping your child that you are moved to write a letter to an advice column when you feel you’re failing him seems pretty much the definition of “actually parenting” 2. The context missing from the ”highly-structured private” daycare comment is that compared to his previous daycare his current one is miles ahead in terms of well supervised activities as opposed to chaotic free play with little teacher interaction. I made the distinction because of his age that he’s not in public school yet –he’s a July baby so in an act of “actual parenting”, we made a decision to delay Kgar. 3. Since he was born, I was extremely fortunate to shift my work hours so that I can pick him up by 3 almost every day. We are so lucky to spend our afternoons going to the park, playdates, library, pool, playing and spending time together even if it’s just running boring errands. I don’t know what gave you the impression we were rushing our stressed little bundle of nerves “in and out of the door, through dinner and bedtime” without spending any time with him, but you’re far off the mark.

  • Lindsay

    February 13, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    Tough question, great answer.  By the way, Ferber (yes Ferber!) says that if a kid is genuinely afraid, your top goal should be to reassure them. He suggests sleeping in the kid’s room for up to a couple of weeks as needed until the kid feels reassured.  Every night, and no sneaking out. Ferber the cry guy says that! The point is the kid won’t get habituated to sleeping in your bed, but will get the reassurance that when they’re scared, you’ll be there. The thinking is that if you send the kid away when they’re scared, they get even more scared and things just get worse, which sounds like maybe what’s been happening for the OP. After this intensive reassurance, the wake ups are supposed to be less frequent and you can go back to your own room, and the kid should go back to mostly sleeping.

  • Katy

    February 21, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Thanks so much for running this letter! We are going through something similar with our 3.5 year old. He recently had a stomach bug, which resulted in his puking all over his bed. After that, he was afraid to sleep in his room, so he’s been sleeping with us. I am really taking to heart that we can’t “fix” his fear, we can just accept it and help him find a way to cope with it.

  • Pat

    January 13, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    For breaking the cycle of fear in children, there’s nothing like getting a dog, or a cat!