Stress can be a problem for your children all the time or just once in a while. It also can be mild or more serious. As it gets worse, your child's fear, anger, and frustration start to take over. At this level, stress is with your child whether he is awake or asleep.
A bad dream or restless night once in a while are not cause for concern. Even a nightmare on rare occasion is not something about which to worry; but if the bad dreams happen often and especially if they are bad enough to call nightmares, your school-age child is experiencing excessive stress.
There are some strategies you can use to comfort your child. First, encourage your youngster to have a quiet time before bed. You might talk with him for fifteen or twenty minutes about something positive and not stressful. The idea is to help him slow down and calm down before trying to go to sleep. This slowing down time combined with a regular bedtime helps establish a going to sleep routine that facilitates your child's being relaxed and calm as he falls asleep.
You also should see if sometime during the day you can get him to talk with you about his fears and frustrations. Talking is always the best medicine for stress; but talking specifically about the dreams or nightmares does not help much.
Your conversation could start like this. "Nightmares like the ones you have been having aren't much fun. They usually mean we're upset or unhappy about something. At least, that's what it's like when I have bad dreams. What's the one thing bothering you the most right now?"
Nightmares are not uncommon for children three to five-years-old or so and are normally not related to unusual stress. For these children, it is typically enough to help them learn to awaken after a bad dream and especially after a nightmare. Also, encourage your child to try to go to the bathroom and to always awaken you when he has a bad dream. Your reassurance while he is still afraid helps. Talking about something to get his mind off the dream often is just the right touch. If things do not get better for your school-age children in a couple weeks or your younger children's nightmares persist and do not gradually reduce or are extreme, be sure to consult with your child's physician about the problem.