Is your child having nightmares related to the coronavirus pandemic? If so, it’s no surprise. Nightmares are common in small children and a normal way for them to deal with daytime fears. Experts say the best way to handle nightmares is to listen to those fears and let children know they are safe. Not so easy when children can see routines have changed, people are wearing face masks, and the news is all about the pandemic. But cuddles, comfort, and a calm household can all help to reassure your child that he or she is absolutely safe and secure.
It’s a common enough scenario for parents. You awaken to loud piercing screams at 3 am. Racing into your four-year-old’s room, you find your daughter drenched in sweat, shaking, her eyes wide with terror. “The men in white suits came to take me and I couldn’t breathe,” she cries, demonstrating that even now, fully awake, she finds it hard to catch her breath.
You climb into the bed and hold her, making soft, calming sounds until exhausted, she falls back to sleep. “It happens every night,” says Sherri Jensen, mother of Jennifer, age four. “We don’t know where she saw photos of health care workers wearing hazmat suits, or how she knows about coronavirus making it hard to breathe. All we know is that this nightmare is very real to our little girl and all of us are losing sleep. We have no idea how to make the nightmares go away for good, so all we can do for now is climb into bed alongside her and comfort her as best we can.”
A father of two small children, Girish Dutt Shukla knows the helplessness of watching a child suffer through the terrors of recurrent nightmares. “My younger one, who has never had any problems with sleep, often wakes up now in a cold sweat—almost every night. One recurring nightmare that she has is that she is trapped in a small room. The room has no windows and is extremely dirty with everything covered in dust. She is all alone in the room when the room starts filling up with strangers. The strangers are coming for her and they all look sick. And then she wakes up screaming for me,” says Shukla, who believes the nightmares are a reaction to the child’s fears about going back to school.
Licensed children’s counselor and therapist Katie Lear says nightmares are par for the course during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is very common for children to experience more frequent nightmares after a stressful or potentially traumatic event. Dreams are a way for our brain to process and store new information, and try to make sense of confusing or overwhelming experiences. Sometimes, the link between the nightmare and the event is really clear: for example, a child dreaming about a loved one contracting coronavirus,” says Lear.
Still, says Lear, “This isn’t always the case, and recurring nightmares of any kind can be a sign that a child is working through something stressful.”
Stay Away From Logic
So what can a parent do to help? Should you tell children that kids with coronavirus tend not to get as sick as adults and may not have any symptoms at all? It’s true enough, based on what we know right now, which isn’t very much.
But Lear suggests it’s better to stay away from facts and logic. “If your child’s nightmares are about a specific fear, sometimes it can be counterproductive to try to use logic to talk them out of it. For example, if a child is fearful of monsters under the bed, continually looking under the bed to prove that there’s nothing there might backfire: after all, if there was really no chance something could be there, why would a parent look?” says Lear.
By the same token, telling a child he or she is not likely to become very sick from coronavirus may lead to some hard-to-answer questions. Questions like: “What if I am one of the very few children who do get really sick? And what if you and Daddy get sick? Will you die?”
Lear instead recommends that parents validate the child’s feelings and offer encouragement. Let the child know you feel sure he or she can handle their fears. A parent might say to the child: “This dream must have been so scary to you! I know you are so brave and strong, and you’ll be able to get back to sleep even though it was a tough dream.”
Lear also suggests parents create a bedtime routine to help children settle, unwind, and reduce worries before bed. “The predictability of a routine may cue the child’s body that it’s time to sleep, which in turn can help children feel sleepy earlier in the evening. This may set children up for a more restful night with fewer bad dreams,” says Lear.
When Shukla’s daughter began having nightmares, he consulted with her pediatrician, who suggested ways to improve the quality of the girl’s sleep. “We changed the lighting of her bedroom to make it dimmer and more soothing. We replaced her old pillows and sheets with new, more comfortable ones. Then we checked to make sure her room receives enough sunlight to maintain her circadian rhythm, so that she can sleep and wake up properly.
“During the day, we practice deep breathing and meditation techniques to calm her anxiety and her fears. We also started a nighttime routine for her: A bath followed by one story and some cuddling,” says Shukla.
The big question for all parents, of course, is how to keep children from hearing the anxiety- and nightmare-producing news. After his daughter’s first nightmare, Shukla decided to limit his daughter’s exposure to pandemic news. He and his wife were also careful not to have conversations about the virus within hearing distance of their children.
But children have an uncanny way of hearing what they shouldn’t, notes Olga Zakharchuk, a mother of two small children under the age of four. “While we obviously try and keep the scary news away from our toddler, it’s impossible for them to not pick up on some of the huge changes going on in their lives, from masks to missing family members. But even just the stress of routine changes can cause enough anxiety for nightmares, without a scary, invisible monster like a virus looming around,” says Zakharchuk.
Zakharchuk, who also runs a parenting website, believes that honesty is always the best policy. “Make sure your kids understand what they hear. It’s best to be (age-appropriately) honest with them rather than have them build something up worse than it really is in their minds. This virus is the stuff of nightmares for sure.”
Nightmares are definitely a cue that children are scared, but Zakharchuk says parents shouldn’t wait until children awaken screaming and drenched in sweat. “Ask them during the day if they have any questions about what is going on. Ask them if they’re worried about anything. Let them have a chance to ask questions and explain their thoughts so you can help them cope and give them an outlet for their fears that’s safe and loving. Even when they do have nightmares, they’ll know they can talk about it with you and that you have words to make it make more sense.”
But let’s say your child is, in fact, already having nightmares. How should you handle the situation? Texas therapist Courtney L. Jewett suggests that when small children have nightmares, parents reassure them that such dreams are completely normal. “When your child experiences nightmares, begin by helping the child to know that it’s okay that they are having nightmares, and that they are safe. You can help your child feel safe by answering questions about the coronavirus situation, reinforcing what your family is doing to stay safe, comforting your child, and creating a calm, safe environment at home,” says Jewett.
Create A Routine
Jewett also suggests stepping up all the great stuff parents are probably already doing for children before bed. “Reinforce feelings of safety and calm in their bedtime routine, perhaps by reading a happy story, spending extra time with them, and having objects of comfort like their favorite stuffed animal handy.”
Therapist Nicole Arzt says that even older children thrive on routine because it helps them feel safe and aware of their surroundings. “Parents tend to follow routines with smaller babies, but it’s easy to fall out of habit when life naturally becomes more hectic. That said, bedtime routines can help ease nerves and release some of the stress before falling asleep.
“Be attentive during this process. During this time, you may need to be a bit more hands-on with your child. That may mean extra snuggles and bedtime hugs/kisses.”
Nightmares And Suppressed Emotions
“Also, check in with their feelings regularly throughout the day,” says Arzt. “Some research suggests that frequent nightmares indicate suppressed emotions. Allow your children to express themselves without judgment. Talk to them about what’s going on. Ask them how you can best be supportive.
“Finally, it can also be helpful to get your child a special ‘bedtime friend,’” says Arzt. “This could be a unique pillow or stuffed animal, but it’s designed to ‘take the bad dreams away.’”
Melanie Musson, a writer and mother of five says her seven-year-old daughter started having nightmares early on during the pandemic. “She would dream that people she knew would get sick and die. Sometimes she would dream that she could see the coronavirus coming to get her,” said Musson.
COVID-19: Stuff of Nightmares
“When she started having these nightmares, my husband and I realized just how much our conversations were consumed with COVID-19. All she would hear was us talking to each other about it, so she knew something scary was happening but we weren’t talking on her level, so she didn’t even grasp what it was which made the whole subject even more frightful for her.”
The link between the child’s fears and discussion in the house about coronavirus soon became clear to Musson and her husband. That’s when they decided to do something about it, and tackle the situation head on. “My husband and I stopped talking about it in front of her and instead, started talking to her. We answered our daughter’s questions. We made sure she understood what the virus was. We didn’t minimize the pandemic, but we made the situation understandable.”
And just like that, Musson’s daughter stopped having nightmares. “The unknown aspect seemed to be what scared her the most. Once she knew what was actually happening, she started sleeping well again,” said Musson.
Connect With A Therapist
But let’s say you tried all that, the bedtime routine and talking things out, and your child still cries out at night, frightened and shaking. Courtney Jewett says it may just be time to consult a therapist. “If nightmares continue or if your child is struggling emotionally, I encourage you to connect them to a therapist,” says Jewett, adding that you need not even leave the home. “Many therapists, myself included, are right now working with children through online therapy. Therapy helps children express their feelings, oftentimes through play. Childs play therapy, like any other therapy, can be effective at helping to increase feelings of safety, support, and connection for children and adults of all ages.”
We may not be able to make the plague go away—COVID-19 is a nightmare for us all—but we can help our children face their fears and feelings. Begin by maintaining a calm environment at home and offer up lots of cuddles and hugs. Get kids to talk about what’s bugging them, and find and stick to a calming routine. But if, in spite of your best efforts, the nightmares continue, consider calling a therapist. A little play therapy may be just what your child needs to get through this difficult time, uncharted territory for parents and children alike.