Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When Dreams are NOT So Sweet

Have you ever been startled out of a deep sleep by a crying child? The first few times this happens, we parents levitate out of bed with our heart pumping and adrenaline surging, ready to do battle to protect our offspring. Parents are ever diligent during the day to make their children’s world as safe as possible. We hold their hands while crossing the street, we child proof our homes, we make sure their daytime care facilities – be it daycare, babysitter or school – are a safe environment. And at night, we tuck them in their warm and cozy beds with a full tummy and a gentle kiss on the forehead. Then we allow ourselves to relax, enjoy adult company and finally sleep before we have to do it all over again the next day.

Then the nightmares begin. For most children, nightmares are occasional incidents that can often be attributed to a specific event, or to an overtiring and difficult day. Sometimes we never know what triggered them. We are just glad they don’t happen very often.

Are nightmares normal? It certainly looks that way. Most children will have some experience with them. Nightmares may be the brain doing some extra work, below the level of full consciousness, to work through a stressful situation from their day. We all need time to process difficult issues and sometimes nightmares are a side effect of that healthy process. When the nightmares happen more often, this could be a sign that the child is not coping well with something stressful. The nightmares continue, increasing in frequency, as the child tries and fails to resolve the stressful issue.

How can we help our crying child in the middle of the night? Alan Siegel, Ph.D. from Cappella University suggests the four R’s for nightmare relief.

Reassurance that they are not alone, that they are safe and that it is OK to talk about their dream is the most important first step. Give your child a hug and let them know that you understand about nightmares and that everyone has them. Then discuss the dream.

Rescripting how the dream ends after you’ve gotten the details of the actual dream is like assertiveness training for the imagination, (according to Gordon Halliday, see reference below). Encourage your child to use their imagination in changing the scary parts and rewriting the ending where they are in control of the situation. Put that dinosaur in time out, tell that tiger, “bad kitty!” and make him turn into a kitten, or shout, “Boo!” to the ghost and scare him away. But be cautious about using so much imagination here that the nightmare’s message or warning of a possible coping problem goes unanswered. And certainly, don’t be so creative that you end up creating your own nightmare scenario!

Rehearsal goes a step beyond the new endings we imagined in rescripting. We go over the dream again with our new solution, and then we apply that tool to a similar situation.

Resolution involves getting to the root of the matter. Or what caused the nightmare in the first place. If the child had difficulty with a similar situation the previous day, ask them how they would now change that outcome? And remember that children will only talk about the scary stuff when they feel safe enough to relive it in the retelling. Writing, art work, or creating a play or story are good alternate ways your children can express their fears.

So what do we do when nightmares occur too frequently? When the nightmares are consistently violent or disturbing, when they just won’t go away no matter what you try, it may be time to turn to an expert. Your pediatrician can rule out any side effects from prescription drugs or any physical condition that may be triggering the nightmares. After the physical aspect has been ruled out, a behavioral health specialist should be consulted.

Now, as a practicing psychologist, I can tell you that I have also used some of these same procedures, very slightly amended, to help older children and adults as well. So, keep that in mind if you have your own issues with troubling dreams. Hopefully, this little ditty on nightmares will help you and help our little ones sleep like the proverbial baby.

Pleasant dreams.

Thanks for reading and please leave a comment on your own experience with childhood nightmares.

References for this blog:

Dreamcatching: Every Parent's Guide to Exploring and Understanding Children's Dreams and Nightmares by Alan Siegel and Kelly Bulkeley. Published by Random House's Three Rivers Press. Copyright © 1998.

"Treating Nightmares in Children" by Gordon Halliday in Charles Schaeffer, (editor) Clinical Handbook of Sleep Disorders in Children (New York, Jason Aronson, 1995)

1 comment:

Joseph A. Banken, MA, PhD said...

This research was just released, and I thought it added some valuable information,as pertaining to adults who have nightmares.

Nightmares predict elevated suicidal symptoms

Self-reported nightmares among patients seeking emergency psychiatric evaluation uniquely predicted elevated suicidal symptoms, according to a research abstract that will be presented on Tuesday, June 9, at SLEEP 2009, the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

Results indicate that severe nightmares were independently associated with elevated suicidal symptoms after accounting for the influence of depression, whereas symptoms of insomnia were not. These findings suggest that nightmares stand alone as a suicide risk factor in adults.