Childhood Nightmares

Many children wake up in the middle of the night from a scary dream. Sometimes they get up screaming or crying and run to their parents’ bed. This phenomenon of childhood nightmares is fairly common and usually passes with age. There are two types of nocturnal disorders – one is night terrors and the other is nightmares.


In general, there are two types of sleeping cycles – REM (rapid eye movements) and non-REM. The first is characterized by brain activity which is similar to wakefulness. When a child wakes up during REM sleep, he is able to tell whether he has had good or bad dreams (“nightmares”) and later go back to sleep when pacified by his parents.

Dream studies have estimated that about three quarters of dream content or emotions are negative. This type of nocturnal disorder concerns us more, because it is part of the child’s dreaming process and can thus reveal ongoing difficulties in the child’s life.

Night Terrors  

Studies found that during non-REM sleeping cycles, the child’s (as well as the adult’s) sleep is heavy. Children who wake up from a bad dream during non-REM deep sleep will experience night terrors. Although it seems as though they are awake during a night terror and are open to dialog, they will appear confused and will often not recognize others. They will often sweat and hyperventilate. Finally, they will almost never recall the events of the night in the morning.

In these cases, the dream is a tool by which the child processes context from his daily experiences. Night terrors appear only after the age of 2 probably because by this age the child learns his limits and consequently faces fears. The child realizes that getting help means being dependant on others and therefore being vulnerable.

One result of this awareness are the power struggles typical of many 2 year-olds, who try to come to terms with the boundaries of their power. Most normative dreams, which are frightening for the child at this age, concern anger at the kindergarten teacher, peer competition children and anger against the parents.

Case study

The parents of the 5 year-old girl, who made this drawing, report that over the past 6 months she has been waking up every night from nightmares, sometime even several times a night. They asked us to analyze her drawings to discover the cause of her distress.


Our analysis revealed that the distress articulated by her nightmares was related to her general behavior during the day, which was also stressful. We observed regression in her drawing level, as she reverted to basic scribbling. In addition to this regression, her drawing is characterized by heavy pressure and angular movements, indicative of her distress.

Analyzing other family members’ drawings enabled us to identify a strong connection with her older brother. It then turned out that her brother had been hospitalized for several months due to rare disease. The solutions we offered to the family were therefore based on this relationship.

Did you know?

Studies found that children raised in more liberal families suffer from night terrors  more than those raised in families with strict boundaries.


  • Established a peaceful bedtime routine. For example: taking a bath, listening to a story, receiving a hug and then going to sleep.
  • Make sure your child receives the standard age-appropriate sleeping hours.
  • In case of night terrors, don’t try to awaken your child. Make sure he is safe in bed. Remember that in most cases, the child will return to sleep in few minutes and will not recall the experience in the morning.
  • In case of nightmares, help the child feel safe and protected in your presence. Do not ignore her dreams and fears, but discuss them in the morning.

Childhood nightmares are unpleasant, especially for kids who are not well-equipped to handle fear. Nocturnal disorders coupled with lack of sleep affect children’s functioning throughout the day.

Analyzing children’s drawings professionally helps to understand whether the nocturnal disorder is caused by a real problem the child is struggling to cope with. Such diagnosis of children’s drawings can provide effective tools to cope with their fears.

Want to know more?

Our learning center will familiarize you with important tools and topics for understanding children’s drawings.


If you have any comments or questions about this article, contact us or leave a reply below.

2 replies
  1. nasty dreams
    nasty dreams says:

    The trouble with dreams, bad dreams or night terrors is the fact that they really are all completely pertaining to the private significance it contains for those people who have the dream. A couple of individuals could have a exact same dream but convey a variety of things when it comes to each other. And that means you must keep a balanced view when studying the details in your own dream.

    • roshadm
      roshadm says:

      I agree that individual’s dreams or drawings convey various meanings that are somewhat different from each other although the narrative could be the same. On the one hand, as Jung claimed, there is one global subjective (e.g.: common symbols), but on the other hand, every child or adult give unique perspective to the same story. Freud once wrote in his book “The meaning of dreams” that he listens to stories about dreams similarly to the way he observes drawings. Both are actually expressions to one’s mind.


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