I know he’s standing there, perfectly still, next to my bed, watching me. No, this isn’t a scene from a horror movie, it’s just a typical middle of the night scenario at our house. My 4-year-old, James, is up again complaining of a bad dream. I walk him back to bed, tuck him in, pray with him, and head back to my bed, unsure of how many more times I will have to repeat this ritual.
I vividly remember the very first time James had a nightmare. He had just turned 3 years old. One afternoon he told me he’d had a bad dream the night before about a show he’d watched, a Curious George episode where George gets sick and dreams that he goes inside his own body to meet the germs living in there. The specific scene that spooked James was when they were inside George’s mouth and the “big tongue and big teeth” had frightened him. I didn’t think much of it.
That night he woke up screaming in terror that the “big tongue and big teeth” were in his room, above his bed. The next two to three months consisted of constant night waking, refusing to go to sleep, sitting by his bed for hours, rocking and consoling. We tried everything from night lights to new stuffed animals. There were tons of suggestions from friends and family. Nothing worked. Finally we started making some headway with a small prize in the morning if he went to bed without fuss the night before. This seemed to help, along with his suggestion to leave the light on in his room, just dimmed. It felt like Christmas morning that first night he went to bed well and slept peacefully through the night!
The reprieve didn’t last long though, soon he started having more nightmares. They all seem to spur from that original fear. One dream was from a scene in the movie “Finding Nemo” when they’re inside the whale and again there was the “big tongue and big teeth.” More recently anything with a wide open mouth, like an alligator scene from a book, would cause nightmares. Every now and then he has a good night, and we ALL get a full night’s rest, but those are rare.
James has always had an incredible imagination and advanced vocabulary. He loves to tell stories and can recite his favorite books, show scenes and songs word for word. I can only imagine how vivid his dreams must be. Many times he’ll tell me his dreams and I’m just amazed. But when they’re nightmares, he’s hesitant because you can see it frightens him to even describe them.
We’ve tried various tactics to help him deal with these bad dreams. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. One time my husband was able to calm him down by getting him to laugh about the dream, to turn it into something funny instead of scary. It helped get him back to sleep, but didn’t necessarily solve anything.
James came up with the idea of putting what he described as “scary stickers” on the wall in his room to scare away the bad dreams. It worked for a couple nights. We’ve tried a “Bad Dream Spray” bottle of water, flashlight next to his bed, favorite toy in his bed, you name it. Sometimes I drive myself crazy trying to make sure he doesn’t watch, read or listen to anything that would potentially scare him. It’s impossible.
At bedtime, we’ve tried to make sure we talk about the fun things we did that day and to get him to describe something good that he wanted to dream about that night. He always has a smile on his face when falling asleep. But they still come. He seems to understand that the bad dreams aren’t real, they’re in his imagination, but he pitifully states the unfortunate reality that he cannot control the dreams. “They’re just so real feeling Mommy.” My heart hurts so much that I can’t fix this for him.
We’re in the process of re-doing our younger son, Luke’s room and are planning to have the boys move in together. My hope is that having his brother next to him will help ease these bad dream fears, maybe even build his courage in dealing with them. If that doesn’t work, we’re all going to start looking like nightmares!
Mandy Watts is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Crownsville with her husband, Justin, who runs their family business, and their two sons, 3-year-old James and 1-year-old Luke.