If your child is experiencing nightmares, don't assume they're the result of a traumatic event. The best response is to comfort her and explain that bad dreams aren't real.
Credit: Raphael Buchler

Q: What's the best way to help a 11-year-old child who frequently has nightmares?

A: Try not to act overly concerned, and don't worry that your child's nightmares mean that he has been traumatized by something, advises Henry J. Gault, M.D., national spokesperson for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "The best response is to reassure your child that everything is okay," Dr. Gault adds. "If he awakens feeling frightened, comfort him and tell him that he's fine." If he's concerned because his heart is pounding or he's sweating, assure him that those are normal ways for the body to respond to bad dreams and that he'll feel all right again in a few minutes.

Help him understand that dreams are like watching a movie. "Everyone has scary dreams sometimes," you could say. "But they aren't real."

Concern may be warranted, notes Dr. Gault, if the nightmares are so frequent that your child develops a fear of falling asleep or if he is irritable or fearful during the day. "Then you may want to limit your child's exposure to violent movies or video games and check to see if there's anything unusual, such as attending a new school, that's been causing stress in his life," he comments. Talk with your physician about consulting a child and adolescent psychiatrist.