Dear David Coleman: My five-year-old son is having night terrors about monsters and dragons coming to get him
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. Our five-year-old son has been having a bad spell of night terrors for some time now. He typically "wakes" about two hours after going to sleep. He screams and kicks out like he is trying to fight off someone, or something, and shows little sign of recognising his dad or me when we go to comfort him. The next day he describes his dreams of monsters or dragons, or a man coming upstairs into his room. We explain that he's safe and nobody can get into our house, or his room, but nothing is working. Any advice would be welcome.
David replies: Parents can often confuse night terrors and nightmares. With a night terror, a child can appear to be awake and terrified, but if you try to talk to them, or reassure them, they probably won't acknowledge you. When the terror passes, they will fall back asleep and in the morning, they usually have no recollection of even having had a dream, never mind being so terrified.
Often, with night terrors, there is little that a parent can do other than wait it out and staying with their child until the terror passes. Doing this can be really distressing for parents, as it is very upsetting to watch our children in such a terrified state, and to feel so powerless to help them. There are usually no specific anxiety triggers that are linked to night terrors. They really do seem to be just a phase that children go through.
Nightmares, on the other hand, are much closer to what we understand dreams to be, in that they often involve a child feeling caught up in a story, and, in a nightmare, that story involves a frightening turn of events for the child. Children will usually be able to recall their nightmares and can recount the details the next day.
Nightmares also seem to happen more when children are experiencing some kind of anxieties during the day too. Often they may have a nightmare following some experience of being frightened or upset, and so we can guess that the nightmare is some further way of trying to unconsciously process that fright that they got.
Your son's dreams sound more like nightmares than night terrors. The fact that he is able to remember them and recount them to you is the key thing that suggests that they are more likely to be nightmares.
With that in mind I wonder has anything happened to him that might have been frightening or anxiety-provoking? It may not have seemed as important to you, but may have been important for him? You don't mention any trigger events that may have occurred around the time the nightmares started happening, but if you can think back it might help to get to the root of the nightmares. His teacher may be aware of any stresses in school?
If you can help him to process, and deal with, any daytime anxieties it might eliminate the nightmares altogether.
Your efforts to reassure him that he is safe and secure in his bed may not be very successful if you haven't also taken the time to connect in an emotional way, with the fear that he had during the dreams. You might need to empathise a lot more with him about the scariness of the dreams, so that he feels you really understand just how bad and frightening they were.
When he feels you really understand him, he may be more open to hearing your reassurances about the practical things - like locks and alarms - that keep him safe at night. Another strategy you might like to try is to get him to rehearse the typical nightmares that he has while changing the ending.
So, instead of the nightmares all ending with him being overcome by monsters, dragons or robbers, get him to imagine the same scene with him being strong and powerful and killing the monster, or bringing in his own friendly dragon to slay the scary dragon.
Creating positive endings to the dreams that involve him being strong, resilient, powerful or victorious, when they are rehearsed during the day, will hopefully transfer into his subconscious such that they are activated during the nightmare, turning it from being frightening into being empowering.
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