The “Dream Changer” technique for reducing children’s nightmares

little girl in bed, holding and examining a hand-held electronic device

Some children experience nightmares on a regular basis – once per week, or more. What can parents do to help kids cope? If your child has just awakened from a nightmare, and comes to you for support, it’s important to provide reassurance. Kids need to see that you aren’t afraid, and that you will help them reconnect with reality. So the standard advice is all good:

  • Tell kids they are safe.
  • Let them talk about the content of the dream.
  • Remind them that dreams aren’t real (showing them, if necessary, that there aren’t any monsters under the bed).
  • Be sympathetic, confident, and calm, and help kids relax so they can fall back to sleep.

For recurring nightmares, there’s also evidence that kids can benefit from learning to “rescript” their dreams. Rewrite the bad dream in their imaginations – by becoming empowered, vanquishing the threat, and arriving at a happy ending (e.g., St-Onge et al 2009).

In addition, it’s helpful to implement a regular, soothing, bedtime routine each night (so your child will learn to associate sleep onset with feeling safe and tranquil), and to avoid exposing your child to media content this is disturbing or overly-stimulating. Read more about it in my article, “Nightmares and night terrors in children.”

But there’s more. Recently, researchers at Flinders University, in Australia, tested a very simple technique for reducing the frequency of children’s nightmares. It involves giving kids a concrete way to think about taking control, and it looks very promising. In just two weeks, children using this technique cut their rate of nightmares in half. Here are the details.

Choosing better dreams with the “Dream Changer”

Picture this. You give your child a device — a hand-hand “clicker” that resembles the remote for a television. But this one doesn’t control the TV. Instead, it’s a “Dream Changer.” And you explain its purpose this way:

“When you don’t like something on the screen you use the remote to change the channel, right? Now you can do the same things with your dreams. Dreams are like videos that we watch in our sleep — our brain creates them, and we watch them with our eyes shut. From now on you decide which ‘video’ to watch in your sleep. When you get into bed, think about a good dream you’d like to watch in your sleep tonight. And if a bad dream starts screening, use this to change it” (Bourboulis et al 2022).

This is the script that Stephanie Bourboulis and her colleagues used in an experiment on 56 children, ranging in age from 3 to 10 years. The researchers randomly assigned kids to either the “Dream Changer” intervention or a passive control group. The kids who received “Dream Changers” were given the talk by their parents, and they were asked to use the device every night for two weeks.

Bourboulis’s team followed the children’s progress throughout — before, during, and after the program ended. And results were substantial. Before the experiment began, the kids had been experiencing an average of 3.4 nightmares per week. But they started showing improvements after just one week of using the “Dream Changer,” and by the end of the two-week period? Their average number of nightmares had fallen to 1.6 per week (Bourboulis et al 2022).

Moreover, these kids also showed moderate reductions in their nighttime anxiety levels, and the benefits weren’t short-lived. Three months later, the children were still maintaining their improvements.

Meanwhile, kids in the control group did not experience any reductions in nightmare frequency. Nor did their anxiety levels go down.

Why would a technique like this have the potential to reduce nightmares in children?

There may be several psychological mechanisms at work. People who study nightmare disorders have long argued about what makes certain therapies effective. One popular hypothesis concerns what happens when (during waking) we recall a disturbing nightmare and then change it — the “rescripting” I mentioned earlier (Rousseau and Belleville 2018). The process usually gives patients a feeling of mastery over their nightmares, and it’s this feeling that predicts whether or not rescripting helps (Kunze et al 2019).

Researchers aren’t yet clear on how a sense of self-efficacy might cause a reduction in nightmares. Maybe, by alleviating worry and lowering stress levels, the brain becomes less hyperreactive to perceived threats, and less likely to generate and encode emotionally disturbing content at night (Gieselmann et al 2019). Perhaps, too, taking control makes the brain reprocess its memories of the nightmare, so that it eventually stops trying to “replay” that particular content during subsequent dreams.

In line with these ideas, Bourboulis’ team thinks the “Dream Changer” technique may help kids by making them feel less helpless and passive. It might also lead kids to engage in something akin to “dream rescripting”. When kids are asked to “change the channel” on their dreams, they might imagine a new scenario or story – one where they are no longer feeling threatened.

Will this work for everyone?

Maybe not. And we don’t yet know if the effects seen in this experiment are typical. As the researchers themselves note, their results need to be replicated in subsequent studies. But meanwhile, this looks like something that many families could try at home.

Is there a downside to using this technique?

Although I haven’t seen anyone raise this objection, I can imagine that some people might feel parents are being asked to mislead their kids — to make kids believe that a remote control device has the power to stop bad dreams. But I don’t think it has to unfold this way. Parents can explain to their children that it’s the act of using the clicker — and thinking the thoughts — that sends a helpful message to the brain.

To me, the bigger concern would be if parents relied on this technique alone, without also addressing any underlying emotional issues that a child might be wrestling with. If, for instance, a child keeps having nightmares about dogs — and has a fear of dogs — it’s important to actively work with your child to unlearn this fear. Simply changing the channel on nightmares isn’t enough.

Similarly, if your child’s nightmares are triggered by a traumatic event — or by ongoing trauma, such as bullying — a dream-clicker isn’t going to cut it. We need to make sure kids are safe, and help them get the treatment they need to recover.

So I think it’s best to view this technique as something to add to your repertoire — not as a substitution for dealing with difficult emotions. And, as always, if something about your child’s nightmares seem worrying or unusual, be sure to discuss them with your pediatrician.

Where can you learn more about coping with nightmares and nocturnal fears?

In my article, “Nightmares and night terrors in children”, I help parents tell the difference between these two phenomena, and offer evidence-based information for coping with each. In addition, for more information about different approaches to extinguishing fear, see my article, “Nighttime fears in children: A practical guide for the science-minded.”

References: Techniques for reducing children’s nightmares

Albanese M, Liotti M, Cornacchia L, Mancini F. 2022. Nightmare Rescripting: Using Imagery Techniques to Treat Sleep Disturbances in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Front Psychiatry.13:866144.

Bourboulis S, Gradisar M, Kahn M. 2022. The “Dream Changer”: a randomized controlled trial evaluating the efficacy of a parent-based intervention for childhood nightmares. Sleep. 45(4):zsac004.

Gieselmann A, Ait Aoudia M, Carr M, Germain A, Gorzka R, Holzinger B, Kleim B, Krakow B, Kunze AE, Lancee J, Nadorff MR, Nielsen T, Riemann D, Sandahl H, Schlarb AA, Schmid C, Schredl M, Spoormaker VI, Steil R, van Schagen AM, Wittmann L, Zschoche M, Pietrowsky R. 2019. Aetiology and treatment of nightmare disorder: State of the art and future perspectives. J Sleep Res. 28(4):e12820.

Kunze AE, Lancee J, Morina N, Kindt M, Arntz A. 2019. Mediators of Change in Imagery Rescripting and Imaginal Exposure for Nightmares: Evidence From a Randomized Wait-List Controlled Trial. Behav Ther. 50(5):978-993.

Rousseau A and Belleville G. 2018. The mechanisms of action underlying the efficacy of psychological nightmare treatments: A systematic review and thematic analysis of discussed hypotheses. Sleep Med Rev. 39:122-133.

Simard V and Nielsen T. 2009. Adaptation of imagery rehearsal therapy for nightmares in children: a brief report. Psychotherapy.  46:492.

St-Onge M, Mercier P, De Koninck J. 2009. Imagery rehearsal therapy for frequent nightmares in children. Behav Sleep Med. 7(2):81-98.

Content of “The ‘Dream Changer’ technique for reducing children’s nightmares” last modified 2/2023

image of little girl with device by Liderina / istock

Stay up to date
Register now to get updates on promotions and coupons.

Shopping cart