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Dream Busting for Children

by Kimberly Willis PhD(more info)

listed in hypnosis, originally published in issue 129 - November 2006

As adults, we know that dealing with nightmares can sometimes be difficult, and as parents we know most children have nightmares at some time during their childhood. But for most children the nightmares are not a regular occurrence, and when they do happen they can usually be sorted out with a talk and a cuddle.

What do you do when a child’s odd nightmare becomes more frequent and develops into a full-blown fear of sleep?

As a mother of two, I have had some experience in dealing with childhood nightmares, and I remember as a child how scary and real they could be. My six year-old has, like so many other children, had the odd nightmare. In the past, it was possible to settle her quickly back to sleep with hugs and reassurances. I took it as a normal part of growing up, something we all go through, but not something that would start to affect our daily lives.

Nightmares Every Night

But, when her older sister’s obsession with Harry Potter led her to watching the Harry Potter films, and listening to the stories, the odd nightmare started to become more regular. These nightmares were more severe than those she had experienced in the past,and it took longer and longer to settle her back to sleep after each one. Then, before I had realized what was happening, the odd nightmare had turned into a nightly episode.

At first, even though it was every night, I was still not worried, tired but not worried. I thought that this would be a phase that would quickly pass, now that she had stopped watching the scary films and listening to scary stories. I would soothe her to sleep each night, but before falling to sleep, she complained of ‘bad thoughts’ and woke afraid in the night, having had a nightmare. As the days went by she became more and more tired, worrying about going to bed from the moment she got home from school. She would start to discuss the thoughts that were worrying her, keeping the images of monsters and Voldemort in her mind. She had long since stopped watching anything to do with Harry Potter, or anything else remotely scary, but the images and thoughts were already there. I tried to distract her thoughts and read her ‘nice’ stories hoping that this would help her.

This pattern continued for a week or two, then one night as I was settling her into bed it started again. But this time it built up into a full-blown panic attack. It had really started building up from earlier in the evening when she was worrying about going to bed, worrying if she would have another nightmare, worrying about being alone. When she was being put into bed she was almost in tears, and then she started to have hysterics and hyperventilate; she was terrified. I had never seen her in such a state.

Initially I did the usual supportive parent thing, which most tired parents rely on, and shouted. Obviously this made things much worse and did not help either of us; in fact we both felt terrible. She was still upset, sobbing, shaking and scared to go to bed. With my parent ‘hat’ on I had run out of ideas. I had been supportive and understanding. I love my daughter and did not want to see her in this distressed state.

How had this built up? As a parent my options had been to soothe her, to take away the cause, leave lights on, check under the bed, tell good stories, but all these had failed.

Enough, I decided that this could go on no longer; everyone was tired and the situation was getting worse everyday. I decided to put my therapist hat on and start talking. I took a deep breath and took a moment to now think of her as a client. If she were my client what would I do?

Practitioner Skills

As a Hypnotherapist and NLP practitioner I could see that I needed to bring in some tools that my daughter could use to help her control her emotional state, and therefore her thoughts. The more she worried and expected the ‘bad thoughts’ to come, the more they did. She was caught in a vicious circle.

The first objective was to calm her down. While she was in this highly emotional and distressed state it was not possible to help her. I got her standing in front of me, her hands on her tummy, and slowly got her to do deep breathing, from her tummy. She was still crying, but the change of location and doing something completely different started to bring her out of her fear and panic. I looked into her eyes and got her to follow me, slowly slowing my breathing down. I was matching her breathing at first and then leading her to a slower rate, using rapport techniques.

As her thoughts turned to her breathing and her tummy, she became calmer. I asked if she could feel her feet on the floor, the carpet on her toes, all the time ‘grounding’ her and talking her thoughts away from her nightmares, taking away the peak of the panic attack. Using language that suited her that she could understand, no longer trying to be a ‘parent.’

As a parent I had not been working from her map of the world, and we had lost rapport. As a therapist I was able to work from her map of the world and build rapport; we could now start to work together.

Her breathing slowed and so did the panic, the tears subsided and she could now hear what I was saying. The change in the way I was talking to her, as a therapist not as a mum, affected her straight away, calming her. I could see that she also did not want to be in this situation every night, constantly upset by nightmares.

But I needed a way of dealing with the cause, the ‘bad thoughts’, as she called them, so that this didn’t happen again. To give her some tools that she could use by herself when I wasn’t there, to give her some control. She was in no state for hypnotherapy, and I
realized that some rapid NLP methods might just do the trick.

I asked her if we should find a way to deal with the ‘bad thoughts’ to ‘bust’ them; she definitely wanted this.

NLP Techniques

We had a chat and, in terms that would work for a six year-old, I explained that she was in charge of putting thoughts in her head. To get this across we talked about something she found funny, throwing water on Daddy in the garden, and this made her smile and she realized that she had put that thought there. This in itself was quite a revelation for her; she was surprised to realize that she could put ‘good thoughts’ into her head. This was the one good thought that I chose for her, as it was a recent memory, and I knew that it would have a strong emotional link for her.

This started to loosen her belief that her thoughts and her nightmares were in control of her; it started her thinking that she might have control. Her physiology started to change; she began to relax as the fear subsided.

We decided between us that we might need more good thoughts in order to ‘bust’ a dream or bad thoughts. We started counting the good thoughts, placing each memory on a finger, helping her to be associated into each good memory in turn. Each thought that she came up with, (it was important that they were her good thoughts), we talked about until I could see a change in her and the good emotions there. By doing this we managed to alter her state from distressed and scared, to happy and confident.

Between us we Devised the Dream Busting Technique:

  • 1 Standing up – creating calm by grounding and breathing from tummy. This helps slow down the mind, letting fear and panic also slow down;
  • 2 Explaining thoughts – carefully, using funny examples to show how they can make themselves laugh, how they can put a good thought, and therefore, a positive emotion into their mind. By doing this they can realize they are also in control of the bad thoughts;
  • 3 Good thoughts – using each finger in turn and placing a happy thought on each one, e.g. thumb – spraying Dad with water, first finger – Christmas morning, second finger – arriving at Granny and Granddad’s, etc. For each thought really re-live the memory with them, using visual, kinaesthetic and auditory representational systems to strengthen the emotional link, creating anchors;
  • 4 Future pacing – explaining that no nightmare could withstand all the good thoughts, and that if bad thoughts came into her mind, all she had to do was start thinking of the memories on her fingers;
  • 5 Testing – getting them to think of something that has been bothering them, then helping them to start working through their good thoughts, asking how they feel after this.

When my daughter later had a bad thought, following a few quiet moments thinking to herself and holding her fingers in turn, she said that she had only needed thoughts from three fingers to get rid of the bad ones, and that she had ‘busted’ the bad thoughts.

The next day she was adding to her thoughts, and is now using her toes. My daughter now comes up to me regularly and says ‘this is another good thought!” She has even said that she has so many good thoughts to add that she will never be able to have another nightmare!

I have been very careful not to emphasize that she remembers each thought; she has come to realize that when lying in bed she has ten fingers and can put good thoughts on each, it doesn’t matter if they are the same or different from yesterday’s thoughts. The memories and fingers they are remembered on can change; therefore, this technique can grow with her.

Since using this ‘dream busting’ technique the nightmares have not returned. In fact, she was able to go to sleep calmly and happily by herself half-an-hour after we devised it, the same evening as the panic attack. Our family life has also greatly improved as we are all getting some sleep now.

This article should really be called nightmare busting, but when using it with my daughter we decided to call it ‘dream busting’ as the word nightmare has such negative connotations. In saying nightmare to a child you already start to put the negative thoughts in their mind; saying ‘dream busting’ just sounds quite silly, which is a good thing.

By providing her with positive emotional anchors she has been able to change her emotional state. It has shown her that she is in charge, and that there isn’t some magical force placing ‘bad thoughts’ in her mind. This new skill has now come into her daily life and she has been able to use it when about to go into a tantrum, has recognized the signs and changed her emotions.

Some mornings my daughter has said to me, “I had some bad thoughts last night, but I went through my good thoughts and only needed thoughts from four fingers to bust it.”

I couldn’t have looked up a method for doing this with a child; it was devised by working with my client, my daughter, utilizing her map of the world. Giving her the tools that she needed and realizing that she had the ability to change her emotional state, as much as an adult would using traditional NLP anchoring techniques.

This shows that, as therapists, if we work with the client and their needs, in their language, we can help them rapidly. Flexibility as a therapist is paramount. I would, however, recommend this technique to anyone dealing with childhood nightmares!

As my daughter put it:

“It’s very good. Think of all the good things you’ve done and put them in your dreams.”


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About Kimberly Willis PhD

Kimberly Willis PhD is an Hypnotherapist, Life Coach and NLP Practitioner at The Stillpoint Practice, a Sheffield-based Complementary Healthcare Practice,
Dr Willis is passionate about working with people and helping them achieve their full potential by overcoming issues holding them back, such as phobias, smoking, stress, panic attacks, weight and confidence. She may be contacted on Tel: 0114-2586133; 0114 2500395;;

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