Dear Barb – Night Terrors

Dear Barb:

My eight-year-old niece has been having nightmares. She wakes up screaming. I’m wondering if something is bothering her. When I try to talk to her, she won’t open up. I think my sister should seek professional help, but she says it’s just a phase her daughter is going through. My sister says this is nothing to worry about. Is it normal for children of this age to have nightmares, or should she be concerned that something more serious is causing these nightmares?

Brenda – Niagara Falls

Hi Brenda. You are obviously a concerned aunt.

From my research, I learned that nightmares are fairly common in children and begin around the age of two. Nightmares are most common in children aged three to six. The exact cause of nightmares is unknown, but it seems to be related to the stresses and strains all children experience while growing up. If the child is going through a particularly difficult time, for example an illness or death in the family, the occurrence of bad dreams and nightmares will increase. As well, a child with an active imagination may be more likely to experience bad dreams and nightmares.

A child who has been awakened by a nightmare will be very frightened. There are things a parent can do to calm the child. Try to prevent the child from watching scary movies before bed. Be prepared to handle the incident, since some nightmares are unavoidable. Parents should make sure they can hear their child if he or she cries out in the night. Children need to know that their parents will protect them and keep them safe.

While a parent may be annoyed at being awakened in the middle of the night by a screaming child, it is important to stay calm. A child will sense a parent’s anxiety and this will only cause the child to become more upset. Talk to the child about what occurred in the nightmare. Reassure the child that the nightmare was a dream and is not reality. Talking may help the child become desensitized to whatever was scary. However, if the child really does not want to discuss the nightmare, let it go. Don’t push the issue.

There are things that the experts advise not to do when a child is having a nightmare. A parent should not allow their child to sleep with them. This will only make the situation worse, as the child may associate sleeping in its own bed with what caused the nightmare. Eventually, the parent may cause the situation that the child insists on sleeping with their parent all of the time. On the other hand, parents should not ignore the child. Do not dismiss the incident by thinking that the child will eventually go back to sleep, as this may cause the child to become even more upset and frightened.

Your sister is correct in saying this is a phase her daughter is going through. If she handles it in a healthy manner, it is not anything to worry about.

Thanks for writing Brenda.

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