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Comforting Children with Nightmares and Night Terrors

By Charles Hopkins Published 07/6/2006 | Parenting
Nightmares and Night Terrors are some of the most unsettling situations for parents as they are generally awakened by their child's terrified screams and crying. To parents in the dead of night, it probably doesn't matter whether it is a nightmare or a night terror, since their only concern is for their child's welfare. In fact, most parents probably do not realize there is actually a difference between the two.

Nightmares - Frequently nightmares take place during the sleep phase known as REM stage usually toward the end of the night. The child awakens terrified from sleep and may possibly start screaming, crying or run into his parents' bedroom. The child is definitely awake and is usually able to remember at least enough of the dream to know what scared him.

What Causes Nightmares?

It is important to realize nightmares are a natural part of growth and development. In young children it may be due to the pressure of learning how to cope with the stresses they face in their daily lives. Perhaps a traumatic event, such as, attending a new school may be the underlying source. The child may even be sick with a fever.

How to Handle Nightmares

1. Parents can use soothing reassurance. The darkness of night can be a frightening place to a young child. Therefore, it is comforting for a parent to hold their child and allow them to feel safe and secure for a little while. Constantly reminding them it was only a dream.

2. Parents should gently try to persuade the child to tell them about their dream. With just one or two words, like "bad man" or "lion" might be the only way very young children are able to express the dream. However, an older child might be able to relate a more thorough account of the nightmare. By permitting the child to recall the dream, the parent may gain an insight into what was the primary cause of the dream. For instance, the child is afraid of the dog next door or a test he or she has to take in school.

3. Parents should continue assuring the child that they will not allow any harm to come to him. Then when the child has settled down some, the parent should encourage him to return to sleep.

4. Parents can empower the child. In the morning, the parent should remind the child about their dream and show them that they can change its outcome. For example, they can tell the child they are able to defeat and imprison the monster instead of being chased by it. The child can demand that the scary dog must go home!

Prevention - If your child is prone to nightmares, monitor his television viewing habits. For instance, you may wish to wait until your child's bedtime before watching upsetting or frightening programs. Make sure that he does not read any scary books either.

Night Terrors - They occur much less often than nightmares. They take place during the deepest non-REM sleep stage usually occurring in the first part of the night. Here the child awakens in terror often screaming, sitting up in bed with eyes staring wide open. Other symptoms may include rapid heartbeat, breathing heavily or perspiring. It can be difficult to awaken the child. Very often the child is unable to remember the dream that scared him or her and awakes in the morning having no recollection of having had a problem the night before.

How to Handle Night Terrors

1. If possible, the parents should try to hold and comfort the child.

2. The parents should remove anything nearby that the child may hurt himself with.

3. If the child is not awake, the parents should not try to awaken him. Then when he is calmed down, they should return him to sleep.

4. In the morning, it is best not to mention what happened the night before.

Prevention - A possible solution is to disrupt the sleep cycle. After the child has been sleeping for a little while, the parent can softly arouse him. Then talking quietly or tenderly kissing him send him back to sleep. Stress and exhaustion can also bring on night terrors. So keeping the child to a regular nap and sleep schedule is recommended.

Thankfully, most nightmares and night terrors eventually resolve by themselves. However, if you feel your child requires professional help, by all means seek someone who is qualified in this area, as this article is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice.