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Seeking help for kids with nightmares

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-31 20:53:27-04

TULSA, Okla. — Falling asleep at night isn't as easy as closing your eyes.

In fact, for some children, the thought of going to sleep can cause major anxiety, affecting physical and mental health.

To combat the issue, psychologists at the University of Tulsa are looking into what causes nightmares and giving children the brain power to make them go away.

While lots of us look forward to crawling in bed after a long day, the reality for some children is the complete opposite.

For siblings, Nathan and Adalyn Knotts, a nighttime routine usually keeps nightmares at bay, but this isn't always the case.

"I probably have bad dreams once a week," 9-year-old Nathan Knotts, said.

His 5-year-old sister, Adalyn, experiences nightmares as well.

"One of these bad dreams, a lion chasing us, and it takes our blood and it takes our hearts."

Most of the time, these bad dreams aren't cause for concern. But psychologists suggest knowing when to act.

"Nightmares can be caused by anxiety, by stress," Lisa Cromer, an associate professor of psychology at TU, said. "Sometimes kids will have nightmares on Sunday when they know they've got school the next day."

Cromer said recurring nightmares can cause physical and mental health issues, which is why she and a team of doctoral students are studying the effects of nightmares in children and how to get rid of them.

"When nightmares are happening, it is during a stage of sleep when your brain is working to consolidate information," Cromer said. "And the way we understand the nightmare happening is the brain somehow is getting stuck and consolidating that information."

Cromer, along with her students, are looking at ways to free this information from the brain, essentially giving it something else to map on to.

"We will identify something in the nightmare where they felt unsafe and change that," Devin Barlaan, a doctoral student and therapist on the University's nightmare treatment study, said.

The sessions begin with talk therapy.

"We start with them writing or drawing about their nightmare," Barlaan said. "They give as much detail as possible. We want to integrate all of our senses when talking about that nightmare."

Once the nightmare is identified, children are taught breathing techniques.

"How can we imagine happier places so we can have a little better control over our body," Barlaan said.

Students also are taught to cast away their worries by writing them down and putting them in a jar. They can then pull that worry out of the jar during the day, focus on it, and then throw it away.

"And then we make sleep about sleep." Barlaan said.

The study has proven that once children know how to breathe and focus on sleep, they're in better control of their minds. If a nightmare were to occur, children can rescript the dream.

It's also important your child is getting enough sleep. This is something those working on the sleep study stress to parents.

"So, we know that kids, especially younger kids, should be getting anywhere from 10 plus hours of sleep per night," Mollie Rischard, a doctoral student and therapist on the University's nightmare treatment study, said. "As you get older, sleep patterns change a bit and we kind of see the more average of 8 hours of sleep that is recommended."

Psychologists at TU said the study is only five sessions long and does not involve any medications.

If your child is experiencing nightmares at least once a week that wake them up, you might consider getting help.

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