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What Parents Can Do About Teen Nightmares

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Many parents know that nightmares, and night terrors, are common in young children. What they don’t realize is that they’re prevalent during adolescence and the teen years, too. Though nightmares tend to decrease after the age of ten, they don’t always disappear completely.

It’s normal for adolescents, teenagers, and even adults to have occasional nightmares. Interestingly enough, adolescent girls seem to have bad dreams more often than boys do.

But what causes nightmares?  And what can teens do about them?

Stress Can Cause Nightmares

Stress, anxiety, or tension during the day often causes the bad dreams teenagers have at night. Trouble at school, conflict or tension at home or between parents, and moving (as in from one city to another) can contribute to nightmares. This is true even if the content of the dream has nothing to do with the stressful scenario in question.

That’s why teens who struggle with mental health issues like anxiety or depression tend to have frequent nightmares. One telltale sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is nightmares at night. Teens who have undergone a recent trauma (divorce, assault, physical accident, loss, breakup, or other major disappointment) may dream about it repeatedly. These nightmares may be so disturbing that they may cause your teen to wake up hyperventilating, trembling, or screaming.

Other times, substance use can contribute to nightmares. Alcohol and drug use can cause hallucinations, delusions, and night terrors in teens.

What to Do About Teen Nightmares

Absent of a mental health condition, teens who have trouble with nightmares should focus on creating a relaxing, peaceful bedtime routine. They should avoid heavy partying, substance use, and graphic movies or TV shows as much as possible. All of these can contribute to disturbing dreams at night.

However, if these tips don’t work, parents and teens need to look deeper.

Teens having trouble with nightmares, or having trouble sleeping in general, should consider whether they’re stressed about anything in particular – at home, school, or with peers. Parents should ask their teens pointed questions about their day, such as:

Are you stressed about your extracurricular activities?

Are you drained and exhausted from academic pressures?

Is everything okay with your friends?

Is anyone bullying you?

Are your friends social excluding you form things?

While teenagers may not willingly initiate these discussions, parents need to know if something is bothering their teen.

In general – to buffer the toxic effects of stress – parents should provide a warm, loving, and lighthearted atmosphere in the home. Concerned parents should reduce the overall amount of criticism and conflict in the home, whether it’s between parents or directed at children. Adolescents may internalize and absorb this stress and tension, which is not good for their long-term emotional health. Parents should also recognize that when they’re stressed about something themselves, they may reflect this stress back on their children.

The Role of Trauma

Additionally, parents need to consider whether their child has experienced trauma, even if it happened months in the past. Divorce, the death of a loved one, a breakup, even moving to a new home (or city) can be traumatic to adolescents and children. So are car accidents, intense medical procedures, exposure to violence, and abuse or assault. These traumas require immediate intervention: parents with children who experience these things should seek help from a licensed mental health professional who can work on resolving the trauma sooner, rather than later.

A teen suffering from chronic nightmares can benefit from a clinical evaluation or assessment at a mental health treatment center. In addition to trauma, nightmares are often associated with mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, substance use, or addiction. Teens with these mental health issues may need mental health treatment at an intensive outpatient program, partial hospitalization program, or residential treatment center.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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