Bad Dreams and Nightmares

Children like grownups are visited by bad dreams and nightmares. However, children are less able to tell the difference between dreams and reality. To a child, dreams are as true and as vivid as real life. Sometimes the child's fear is caused not so much by bad dreams itself as by the child's fertile imagination and his excessive tiredness after going through the dream.

A bad dream may be the child's way to communicate inchoate feelings he cannot otherwise express. He may have an experience he can neither understand nor explain to himself and which therefore disturbs him even in his sleep.

A nightmare is an intense and terrifying bad dream. You can detect a nightmare when your child exhibits the following:

  • He is suddenly awakened.
  • He is troubled after the dream is over.
  • He appears to be very frightened, perhaps crying if he is very young, and he may be difficult to calm. The youngster will probably be reluctant to go back to sleep.
  • He is reassured by your presence and may cling to you.
  • The scary dream will most probably be remembered by the child the following day. Bad dreams and nightmares may be due to:
  • Physical discomfort:
    • a very hot and suffocating room; an uncomfortable bed
    • stomach pains due to hunger or indigestion
    • fever or the start of an infection or illness
    • difficulties in breathing because of a clogged nasal cavity or some other respiratory ailment
  • Anxiety due to:
    • a frightening experience
    • death or disappearance of one or both parents
  • loss of or separation from people and things from which he draws physical and emotional support
    • being separated from parents over long periods or being left in a strange or unfamiliar place
    • jealousy or anger against a sibling or persons in his vicinity
    • family breakup which destroys the child's sense of security
    • unreasoning fear

This may be caused by simple things like shadows on the wall, insects and crawlies, thunder and lightning or imaginary threats from monsters and scary creatures he has seen in the movies or TV or heard about.

What to do

  • When the child is visited by a bad dream:
    • the child could be ill. Check if the illness is serious enough to warrant a visit to the doctor.
    • make sure the child is fully awake, to realize that he is only dreaming. Turn the lights on so he will see that his dream is not real.
    • hug and kiss him. Assure him that you are there to see him through whatever is distressing him.
    • find out what the dream is about. In the recounting, the child is bound to realize that it was just a dream. This is also a way of indirectly eliciting what is bothering him. Allow him to clarify any doubts or fears. Reassure him of your protection and love.
    • be calm and gentle. If you exhibit shock or apprehension, he will react with the same apprehension and fear.
  • Monitor what the child reads and sees on television or the movies. Tell him he should not let what he sees or reads frighten him as these are not real.
  • Dreams, bad or otherwise, are based on the child's experiences. If something is bothering your child, attend to it at once. Sort out his problems for him and make him understand the situation so that he will not have bad dreams about it.
  • Bad dreams can never be completely eradicated. But you can give your child a peaceful and pleasant home where he does not become unnecessarily frightened. Be sensitive to his feelings and at all times assure him that you love him.
  • Dreams are often easy enough to interpret. But when you can't, don't worry. It is more important to help the child assuage his anxieties, give vent to his feelings and to come to an understanding of his problems.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are much less common than nightmares. They are often mistaken for bad dreams, although the two experiences are, in fact, different. The name “night terrors” is somewhat misleading, as the child will not always be terrified.

You will be aware that your child is experiencing night terror when, being asleep for a few hours:

  • He partially rouses from very deep sleep. Dreaming is not involved and the child never fully wakes up even if he becomes very agitated.
  • The child cries and thrashes about. Bulging eyes and sweating may also occur.
  • He seems confused and may groan and utter unintelligible words.
  • He gets up and sleepwalks and moves quite unlike himself; or he suddenly gets up and runs.
  • The child may seem oblivious to your presence or angrily push you away.
  • He will settle quickly back to sleep.
  • He has no recollection of the episode the next day.

Probable causes

  • His sleeping pattern has not been firmly established. He is not used to the changes that occur in his sleep. After infancy the child should sleep through the night.
  • Sleep comes in waves. It starts with half-wake drowsiness, gradually falls into deep slumber then rises again from an unconscious to a shallow, semi-conscious state. These happen in several waves as we sleep through the night. Deep slumber is motionless and dreamless. It is in the transition towards the shallower state that we dream. For children below 6 years, the slumber is very deep, so that the transition to the shallower dreaming state can be jarring. This could be why the symptoms of a night terror described above appear. Remember that the child is not yet awake and will have no memory of his behavior.
  • If at the age of 7, the child does not sleep continuously in a regular pattern, and continues to have sleeping problems, the night terrors must be a manifestation of a problem that continues to nag him.

What to do

  • If the child's sleep is disturbed and broken, allow the disturbance to subside until the child falls asleep again. If the disturbance worries you, watch his sleep. It will ease your mind to see that although his sleep is broken, he eventually goes back to sleeping peacefully. Just see to it that he does not hurt himself during episodes of sleepwalking and sudden arising.
  • If the night terrors persist past the age of 7, there could be a deeper problem. If these happen often – several times during the night or every night - there is cause for concern. Ask the child what may be bothering him. If he cannot tell you, consult friends, relatives, teachers or even a psychologist. Knowing what is wrong will help you do something about it.

Fantasies and Daydreams

Every child has the capacity to reenact and recreate his experiences. He begins with simple and concrete actions like drawing and playing. Then he plays make-believe. He pretends and acts out the roles of mother, teacher, doctor, etc. He imitates the actions of older people as well as familiar animals. In the process, he expresses his perceptions about people. Finally, he reveals his aspirations and wishes by creating fictional characters, simple scenarios, full-scale stories or even imaginary worlds.

The child's fantasies can serve to uncover his talents and develop his creativity. The writing and telling of stories, dancing, play-acting, and other creative expressions, offer him a means by which to “replay” his experiences and memories, to actualize and share the world of his imagination.

Childhood fantasies are normal and beneficial. A child who lives and acts out his imagination is not a problem unless his fantasies take on a negative turn, as follows:

  • By acting out what he sees around him or on TV, he unintentionally hurts himself or others. Children are exposed to TV shows featuring wonder robots, comic strip super heroes, or such. Often the child does not realize that these robots and super heroes are fictional characters and that their powers and exploits are imaginary. He can come to harm if he tries to do what he has seen them do. There have been reported incidences of children who were badly hurt when, believing they were Superman, they leapt from high places.
  • The child prefers to be by himself and his fantasies instead of with other children. Sometimes, children create imaginary playmates. The child talks and plays with this playmate as though it were real. This is not a matter for serious concern. Usually, by the time the child goes to school or acquires real playmates, he gives up the imaginary one. However, if the child persists in solitary play with an imaginary playmate over a long period of time, there may be a problem.
  • The child fantasizes so excessively that he finds it difficult to return to the real world. He finds it difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality, between truth and fiction. The child may be rejecting reality and clinging to a world of his own making.

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