The nightmare realm: What if it's more than just a bad dream?

Bad dreams may frighten children, but they are normal. Night terrors are more intense — the child may scream or thrash about — and will also frighten the parents, says Geraldine Walsh.

At the age of four, I started to have such vivid nightmares that I still remember almost every detail. They began with a fever and a dream of being chased down a cartoon hill by an ever-stretching, ever-looming arm.

The large, imposing, masculine hand was poised with a thick needle filled with bubbling, green, acidic medicine. I was panicked that I’d lose my footing down the winding and twisting path on the multi-coloured hill. As I constantly turned behind me to see how close the needle was, I would fall and crash into bubble-gum trees.

This was one of two recurring nightmares I had anytime I was unwell or anxious. They lasted until my early teens. The fear induced by those dreams was amplified by the fact that I didn’t understand where they were coming from or why I would fall into these visions so often.

“It’s just a dream,” my mum would say, smoothing down my damp hair and cradling my scared body. ‘Just a dream’ means very little when the fear feels very real to a young child.

What else is there to say? How can we comfort them after they have been shaken awake?

Nightmares can be caused by a number of issues, says Claire Goodwin-Fee, therapist and founder of The Therapy Couch in Kent. “Issues such as being over-tired, over-stimulated at bedtime, and stress can be a factor. Some underlying issues, such as a fever, conditions like sleep apnoea, and certain medications can also be part of the issue.”

As an adult, we have all had our fair share of bad dreams. We know that the feelings they conjure up are not real, which means we can separate ourselves from the hurt attached to the nightmare. Children have not yet learnt that skill and can be easily upset after a bad dream.

“During the night, calm reassurance that they are safe, and that you are there to support them. A hug, or perhaps a comforting toy? For some children, giving them a t-shirt that has your scent on it can be really reassuring,” says Goodwin-Fee.

“Reassure your child that dreams are a way of our brains tidying up after a busy day and that everyone dreams. Ask them what would help them to feel better? Gently explore if anything is worrying them and encourage them to express how they feel about the bad dream,” Goodwin-fee says.

Nightmares can be frightening for the child, but what if it’s more than just a bad dream? Young children are often prone to night terrors, which are a step above a nightmare.

Night terrors can be more frightening for the parent, who may witness their child having an episode, than for the child. Nightmares and night terrors differ in intensity.

Claire Goodwin-Fee.

Goodwin-Fee says: “Nightmares happen during the part of sleep called R.E.M. and is said to be the brain’s way of processing memories.

“Normally, children can remember their nightmares, in part, the next day, including how they felt at the time about the bad dream.

“With night terrors, they aren’t aware of what is happening at that time and don’t remember anything about the episode the next day.

“During a night terror, a child may scream or cry loudly and thrash about as if they were awake. Parents can often feel disturbed, as children can have their eyes open, but don’t recognise them and may become further distressed. This happens in the sleep space between R.E.M. sleep and can last up to 15 minutes in length."

“The child will appear highly distressed, but it’s important to remember that they aren’t.”

Helping your child through a night terror can be stressful and frightening. You may feel at a loss what to do, but do not wake up a person who is having an episode.

“As much as it will probably go against all your parental instincts, do not intervene unless your child is at risk,” says Goodwin-Fee. “By interrupting the night terror, it can prolong the episode and can be deeply disturbing for the parent and will probably increase the behaviour in the child.

“Remember, your child will not have any idea of what is happening to them, during or after the night terror.

“You can keep an eye on them and make a note of when they happen. This may help you to plot when your child has a night terror and you can think about some preventive ideas.”

Whether our children are having bad dreams or night terrors, their sleep is disturbed. This can lead to overtiredness during the day and lack of concentration.

To help our children, it’s best for us to understand the triggers for night terrors. Reducing the risk factors, such as stress, will reduce the episodes.

If night terrors happen repeatedly, your doctor can advise on further support and help for your child.

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