My eight year old son was recently plagued by a recurring nightmare. This nightmare disrupted our sleep and exacerbated his already slow moving, groggy mornings. Being no stranger to sleeplessness due to middle of the night awake sessions, I turned to a handful of tricks to try to ease his night fears. Interestingly, some of the kid-friendly nightmare vanquishing tips have actually helped me with my own overthinking. Parenting has an amusing way of ensuring I am learning as much as I am teaching.
My first trick is to actually shake the bad dreams away. I compare this to an Etch A Sketch toy. When bad dreams find themselves stuck in my kids’ thoughts, I tell them to close their eyes and shake their head back and forth like they are “clearing the screen” and creating a fresh start. Sometimes I will shake my head right along with them, which has the additional benefit of making them laugh. It does look kind of silly, head shaking, hair flying, eyes squeezed shut, and there is nothing quite as powerful as laughter to assist with vanquishing nightmares.
Sometimes the Etch A Sketch trick just doesn’t cut it. The other night, when I entered my son’s room in the middle of the night, he immediately stated, “I already tried to clear my screen and it didn’t work!” He shook his head adamantly to demonstrate that the trick was indeed faulty. I laid down next to him, reassuring him that he was safe and okay. Sometimes just a comforting reminder that we are indeed safe is all it takes to drift back into a restful sleep. Although for my son on this particular night, the reassurance was only partially successful. He was able to calm down but was adamant that I stay with him and chat for a bit. He started a conversation about Pokemon, a current favorite topic, which, inadvertently, gave me an idea. I turned to him and said, “Hey, what if you picture your nightmare is Charizard?” (Charizard is a powerful fire type Pokemon). I continued, “It makes sense doesn’t it? Your bad dreams are big and strong and fiery!” My son gave me a half hearted “uh huh,” clearly skeptical of where I was going. I continued the analogy, “When your bad dream tries to take over your brain, you just picture your brain is… hum…an electric type Pokemon and you zap it. You are pretty strong, way stronger than Charizard.” He laughed, a deep, full belly laugh, and proceeded to explain how an electric type was probably not the best choice against a fire type and my word choice of “zap” was ridiculous. But, he seemed satisfied with my solution, prepared to attack his dream with the Pokemon of his choice, if the need arose.
I find my Pokemon analogy quite insightful (especially considering it was developed in the middle of the night); however, I think the reason for its success was only partially related to the visual. I imagine the main reason it “worked” was due to the distraction factor: not only was the nightmare chased away but a new story had taken its place. Similarly, when my kids struggle to fall asleep because of a bad dream, I suggest that they “write their own dream,” a technique I have found useful for myself. In my experience, if I can intentionally fill my head with something I can direct, I am more likely to stay relaxed. It doesn’t take long and soon there is no place left for the bad dreams to “stick.”
It struck me that finding ways to shake or replace bad dreams also provides some light hearted ways to take back some control when I am struggling with unhelpful thought patterns. All too often, I can get stuck in my own thoughts. Something minor can cause hours of fixation, as I think through all the should haves and could haves. As a social worker, I have spent a significant amount of time reviewing research on how to best take back control of thoughts, such as variations on mindfulness, meditation, physical activity, and journaling. (It’s important to note in some situations seeking help or working with a counselor can help work through particularly difficult thoughts.) However, sometimes there are pesky thoughts, ones that I know aren’t helpful, but I still ruminate over, similar to a nightmare plaguing my mind that just won’t leave me alone. For example, if I find myself overthinking a bad day or moment at work, I try shaking my head to clear the picture, making room for different thoughts. Or sometimes when I find myself ruminating through a negative cycle of self-deprecating thoughts, I try to “zap” them with my electric Pokemon brain, defeating the large fiery monster that was trying to take over my day. And, most important of all, when I clear my head of the negative thinking, vanquishing the nightmare of bad thoughts, I try to remember to intentionally write a different story, a story that will flip the script and add something intentionally positive into my day.
There are layers of complexity to kids’ nightmares and to adult thought patterns, more than can be addressed through these simple approaches. However, sometimes slowing down and focusing on something small, inserting unexpected humor, or visualizing something different can disrupt the thought patterns enough to make a difference. If you have any nightmare vanquishing tricks or tips to disrupt negative thought patterns, I would love to hear them in the comments below!
Jessica is a wife, mom, social worker, and writer. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.
2 thoughts on “Vanquishing Nightmares”
I have tried the make your own dream with my daughter on multiple occasions as she often struggles with bad dreams. I am excited to try your suggestions next time she wakes up from a bad dream. 🙂
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I hope you have had some luck 🙂 Bad dreams are the WORST!