Dear David Coleman: My granddaughter is having bad nightmares - have you any advice?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My four-year-old granddaughter got her leg caught underneath an electric gate and required the fire brigade to free her. Since that incident she has been experiencing nightmares and has an irrational fear of her younger brother getting stuck in an elevator. She becomes very distressed. She has no issues with separation from him when she is going to school.
Her nightmares are also about getting stuck in an elevator. The GP said she would grow out of it but the nightmares are badly affecting her sleep. Have you any advice?
Becoming trapped underneath the electric gate must have been terrifying for your granddaughter. She may have even felt like she was going to die, or have to have her leg removed.
Even the rescue, with the fire brigade, may have been frightening for her, especially if they had to use their specialised cutting equipment to free her. Thank goodness she wasn't physically injured by the experience too.
An incident like this is likely to have been a real trauma for your granddaughter. Nightmares, in the aftermath of trauma, are very common and make good sense in the context of the unconscious self trying to process an experience.
There doesn't seem to me to be anything irrational about her newly developed fear of her brother getting stuck in an elevator either. If she could get trapped in a gate, then her brother could easily get trapped in a lift. If this is being played out in her dreams too, then the vigilance she shows is actually a very rational response to her anxiety.
The GP may be correct that the anxiety and nightmares will disappear in time, but there is no guarantee of that, especially since the nightmares do seem to be closely linked with trauma.
So, dealing with that anxiety, and helping your granddaughter to process the trauma of the incident with the electric gate and the fire-brigade rescue, should be the top priority for her family.
She is very young, but, even at age four, she will be able to remember the experience. While it might be distressing to recall, it will help her for her family to talk about what is was like for her (and for them) while she was trapped.
Ideally, in recalling it, her family will be helping her to link the feelings she actually had, with the experiences. We don't know exactly what she felt, but we could probably guess at a range of different feelings she might have had.
The two most likely feelings are that she felt sore because of how her leg was trapped and scared, or even terrified, that she might not be able to get free.
Her parents' goal is not to try to get her to forget the experience, or to somehow forget the feelings. Their goal is to try to help her feel the feelings and know that they are very specifically linked to the things that were happening to her.
After they have spent some time empathising, in this way, with her emotional response to being trapped, they can then reassure her that she is now safe and that getting trapped again is really unlikely. They can also remind her of how well she actually coped in the midst of the incident.
They might also want to talk with her about her fears about her brother getting trapped and remind her how sensible a fear that is (knowing what happened to her), but that it is their job to worry about him, not hers.
Specifically with the nightmares, her family might also get her to recount the dreams in detail, if she can. Then, instead of the part where her anxiety rises about someone being trapped, they can encourage her to recreate a new ending where she, or her brother, heroically fix the doors on the lift and escape.
The more vivid and creative they can be, with her, in reimagining the ending, the more powerful it might be and the more it will come back to her subconscious, during the dream, such that the dream ends well, rather than her waking in fear about remaining trapped.
Processing trauma can be a complicated business and so, if her parents feel that she is making little progress in the next number of weeks, even using some of my suggestions, they might like to seek professional help from a play therapist or psychologist skilled in working with young children.
Health & Living