Parenting with a PhD: Putting Scary Dreams to Bed

By: Kristen Berthiaume, PhD

It’s the beginning of summer and you’re too busy having fun or trying to keep track of which camp your kid goes to today for a long article (also, I have a newborn so there’s that).  This one will be brief.

If you’re like 90-something % of Americans (not an actual statistic – I made that up), you don’t get enough sleep.  Being woken up by a screaming, blubbering child who just had a nightmare only compounds the problem.  Next time your kid tells you he can’t sleep because of a bad dream, try this technique.  Have him draw a picture of the figure, object, or situation in his dream that scared him.  Keep in mind it may seem weird or silly.  For example, I have a distinct memory of having a nightmare around age five in which a hedgehog (and there is no evidence I even knew what one looked like) was about to jump off (do hedgehogs jump?) my dresser onto my head.  Terrifying.  If your child is too young to create an actual likeness of the nightmare, have him describe it and you draw it.  Don’t add a lot of detail yet and draw in pencil or pen only with no color.

Now, talk about how you’re going to make the object in the picture seem less scary and ask your kiddo for ideas.  Use bright and pastel colors.  Add non-threatening features like silly braids that stick up, googly eyes, an oddly shaped nose, and tiny feet.  Throw on some silly accessories like over-sized bowties, mittens (especially to cover scary claws or weapons), curling purple eyelashes, and ridiculously tall hats.  For example, if my hedgehog had been wearing a fluffy yellow dress and bonnet, I would have welcomed her to jump on me because – hey, cute hedgehog!  Draw in a thought or speech bubble that has the figure thinking or saying something really goofy.  For settings that scared your child (e.g., being alone in a dark forest), add soft white clouds, pretty rainbows, and brightly colored birds.  Have your child imagine soothing sounds or music she might hear there.  Once you have your picture, give a happy, silly name to the object (e.g., Little Lady Hedgehog) or setting (e.g., Happy Rainbow Forest) and write that at the bottom.  To expand the technique a little further, make up a funny story together about the figure or setting filled with lots of very un-scary goings on.

Essentially, this technique takes the “bite” out of what your child fears most about the dream and lets her participate in writing the next chapter.  A kinder, gentler chapter.  Once she gets the hang of this method, the two of you can imagine together the silly version of whatever scared her, instead of actually having to get out pencil and paper.  Now, go have a great summer and try to avoid that dream where you took your kid to the wrong camp and now you can’t find the right one and your cell phone doesn’t work.  And, also, you’re naked.

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her six-year-old and newborn daughters and three-year-old son.

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