Your child screams out for you in the middle of the night. You rush to his bedside, and he tells you he had a bad dream. What should you do?
First and foremost, reassure him that he is safe, everything is OK and the dream was not real. Soothe him, and help him calm down.
"Give them a hug, and tell them that you love them," said Dr. Shaun Wood, an Amita Health general psychiatrist who often treats children and adolescents.
If your child wants to talk, listen closely and try to dispel any lingering fears. If his dream was about a monster or an intruder he thinks is still in his room, show him nothing is there by opening the closet and checking under the bed.
Empathize with how he is feeling, and let him know it's normal.
"It's common for kids with no psychiatric problems to have nightmares," Wood said. "It's not something that typically causes a lot of problems. It's typically short-lived and associated with something that you can put your finger on, like a death in the family, or recent exposure to a scary movie or a news report or social media post about a murder or a school shooting. These are normal distressing things in kids' lives, and they process their feelings through dreams."
As your child calms down, focus on helping him return to sleep. Make sure he has a favorite blanket or stuffed animal to hold. Sing his favorite bedtime song, or play some quiet music he likes. Remind him you will be close by, and leave a hallway light on and his door open a crack. Tell him you will check on him, and make sure to do so.
Try to avoid staying in your child's bed or taking him into your bed. These steps are OK as a last-resort, short-term solution, but don't make them a habit.
"It's not a big deal if it's a time-limited, occasional thing," Wood said. "But if your child is sleeping in your bed every night for a month straight, then you have a problem." Parents can head off such problems by talking with their kids about the importance of everyone -- even mom and dad -- having alone time.
When daytime arrives, talk with your child about his bad dream and things that are happening in his life. Ask how he's feeling about them, and re-emphasize that dreams are a normal way to process feelings. "You can draw upon dream-related experiences that you, relatives or friends had as children," Wood said. "Help your child understand they're not alone in this."
Other steps parents can take include adding a night light and/or dreamcatcher to their child's room, and following a regular bedtime routine at the same time each night. If a child's bad dreams are about monsters, create a monster out of paper together, then tear it up and throw it away.
"Point out again that monsters don't exist -- that they're made up," Wood said.
If your child's nightmares persist and begin to impair his sleep, school work and relationships with family members and friends, arrange to have him evaluated by a behavioral health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed therapist or social worker. "If nightmares come and go, that's normal developmental stuff," Wood said. "When you as a parent are engaging in routine, time-demanding reassurances, or when the child's level of distress is ongoing, then you have an issue and should seek professional assistance."
• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Amita Health. Shaun Wood, M.D., is an Amita Health general psychiatrist who often treats children and adolescents. He serves as director of consultation liaison services at Amita Health Alexian Brothers Medical Center Elk Grove Village and Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center Hoffman Estates. Both hospitals are part of Amita Health, which is comprised of nine acute and specialty care hospitals, including Amita Health Alexian Brothers Women and Children's Hospital Hoffman Estates. For more information on pediatric programs, visit www.amitahealth.org