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Night Terrors

by Ronald A. Rowe | March 19th, 2014 | Elementary

night windowWe spend a lot of time here at Your Parenting Info discussing how to keep our elementary-age children safe from all manner of harm out there in the world. Today’s kids face stranger danger, bullying, peer pressure, sports and play injuries, contaminated food and water, poor role models, and so much more on a daily basis. But some dangers exist only in the child’s own mind. Ghosts, goblins, zombies, and assorted bogey-men can bedevil our children nearly as much as real-life dangers.

How do you protect your child from the dangers that don’t exist?

Nightmares can have a very profound impact on six-, seven-, eight-, nine-year-old children. Some experience a sort of waking nightmare where they are unable to turn off negative images flashing through their brains when the lights go out and the house becomes quiet. There are many sources for these fears. Well-meaning friends, ill-meaning classmates, and accidental exposure to mature-themed movies and TV can trigger night terrors. In more sensitive children, a single exposure can lead to months of sleepless nights.

And the child is not the only one who loses sleep over these night terrors. Parents, siblings –sometimes even neighbors – are apt to be kept up at night when one vociferous child is frightened beyond his or her capacity to calm down and get to sleep.

If you are currently in the throes of a stretch of night terrors, you have probably tried just about every tactic you can think of. You’ve tried being compassionate. You’ve tried arguing. You’ve tried commanding. You’ve tried reasoning. You’ve tried being supportive. You’ve tried bribery and punishment. You appealed to his or her rational side, self-interest, and concern for the well-being of the rest of the house’s inhabitants. No matter what you do that child still ends up in your room at two in the morning, crying and inconsolable.

The good news is you are not alone and there is an end in sight. That may not bring much solace to sleep deprived moms and dads looking for guidance, but it is the truth. The unfortunate reality is that there may not be much that you can do but wait. Night terrors are inherently irrational. You can explain until you are blue in the face that there is nothing under the bed, that the house is secure, that zombies aren’t real. You can have what seems to be a very productive talk during the daylight hours and feel like you’ve got the problem licked with your reassuring oratory. But when the lights go out the same old fears may (probably will) return and that child will be slipping under your covers once again.

The solution – and I apologize now because you are not going to like this – is patience. Some children may respond to one of the methods mentioned above, but the majority of children plagued by night terrors simply need time to work through it. You can’t punish them out of it; that is almost universally true. Rational explanations and bribery have slightly better results, but for most it’s just a matter of time.

  1. Michele says:

    I experienced the parent side of nightmares with my son when he was 9. It went on for several months and was draining for both of us. Although it didn’t work every night, I did find that having him get out of bed and have a few sips of water helped. I don’t have scientific evidence to prove it, but I think drinking the water woke him fully, so when he went to sleep he was less likely to return to the bad dream.

    I know it is hard as the parent, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to stay calm. Even though you’re tired, do your best not to show your anger or frustration. Your child is scared of the dream and should not be scared to come to you for comfort.

    These nightmares will end, or your child will learn how to handle them. My son is now almost 18, and since that few month patch in 4th grade has been nightmare-free.

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