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REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from the Florida Jewish News, pp. 15, 21.
I couldn’t have been that young. Maybe I was 10 or 11 by then because we were in the new house. I would be sleeping but feel as though I were awake. I’d be looking at my room and it looked the way it always did—and yet, somehow different. I’d get up, and feel my way along the hall in the dark, and it would look and feel the same—except different. I’d make my way downstairs to the kitchen for a drink of water, and there, too, everything seemed normal, except it wasn’t.
If I was very, very lucky, I could wake myself from these horrible dreams of being awake when I wasn’t. The only problem is that since, in my dream I fully believed I was awake, that was hard to do. If I didn’t wake up, I’d experience intense anxiety as I got through that dream, and I’d remember the entire awful experience the next morning when I woke up. Although I kept vowing to somehow know that I was in a dream in the future, so I could wake myself up, it rarely happened.
My take on nightmares is that they’re all about control—or the lack of it.
On September 10, 2001, we lived with the ridiculous delusion that we know what’s going to happen next and, to some degree, we have control over our lives. Not so the next day. But children are smarter than we are in that regard. They know how precious little control they really do have. Not only don’t they have control over decisions that adults make, they—like adults—recognize that they don’t necessarily have the degree of mastery that they would like over themselves. For example, they may worry about their level of academic achievement or their prowess in sports—or with the opposite sex. In their own eyes, they may not measure up. So they worry. When adults worry, they may verbalize their concerns, act on them, discuss them, and so on. Children are not developmentally ready to do all that; therefore, bad dreams are merely a reflection of their unarticulated worries.
If this is so, then what were my bad dreams as a child about? Perhaps I didn’t feel safe to walk downstairs alone at night—because I wasn’t in control of the surprises of the dark—so I dreamt about them.
Logically, the dream should be a strong, positive one. That is, it would benefit the child more to dream of overcoming that which she doesn’t control. However, if children were developmentally able to do that, they would simply do what rational adults do which is plan, discuss, and act to solve their problems. Even adults frequently don’t necessarily work to solve their problems. Rather, people tend to go over, perhaps even obsess over, that which they did not succeed in. If that is the case, then childhood nightmares make perfect sense: They are an outlet for a person who does not have the skills or habit of problem-solving to deal with things over which they feel no control.
As such an outlet, they end up achieving the very control they missed having because the parent becomes aware of a sleep problem and begins to help the child. That is, the problem carries the seeds of the solution through the engagement of the parent. As is the case with all “problems,” what seems disturbing has a built-in solution.
So, what is the solution?
Most important is to have open communication with your child so as to understand what is on her mind. If your child worries about school, for example, then dreams of being caught by monsters could simply mean she is afraid of being “caught” unprepared with her work. The monster is her failure to prepare.
Being scared of the dark, too, may lead to nightmares. It is a child’s recognition of her small size and capacity and lack of skills in handling things bigger than she.
Similarly, a child may be concerned about a recent death or illness in the family, a move to a new city with the requirement to make new friends and prove him- or herself, or fears of being hurt (emotionally) in a remarriage. All these may become represented in dreams as running away from some awful “thing.”
By discussing the problem openly with your child, you have an opportunity to allay fears and make real plans for overcoming the problem. For example, if the issue turns out to be fears of failure or embarrassment in school, a nice, philosophical discussion about the meaning of success and failure, your expectations, your continued respect for and love for the child in spite of not being number one, and so forth, will go a long way to allaying fears. I have found in my practice that such conversations with children as young as six and seven can be very healing for children.
Leaving nightlights on, doors either ajar or closed, having an intercom and explaining how it works, are other possible solutions.
When the fear is a monster but you cannot seem to tie it in to specific worries, use the child’s imagination to transform the monster into a little boy or girl just like the child. Begin by asking, “What is the monster’s name?” If it’s a frightening name, ask, “Does he (or she) have a nickname?” Follow up with other questions like, “What is his favorite flavor of ice cream?” “What position does he play in baseball?” “What subjects has he had trouble with in school?” and so forth. These questions normalize the frightening elements of the monster.
Telling a young child that God Himself watches the child all night from right over his head can make a profound difference in calming night terrors.
Unfortunately, this discussion would not be complete without reminding parents to be vigilant for abuse. If sexual abuse is a possibility, please screen for this problem. If emotional abuse in school is a potential source of childhood distress, please see the article on School Phobia.
It is possible, although highly infrequent beyond infancy and toddlerhood, that your child’s nighttime sleep problems come from attempts to get parental attention. I remember, at three, one of my children would not let me leave the room during the night. Stupidly, my softhearted husband and I slept in that room for a month! Every time we tried to leave, the child woke up and cried! Finally, we just gave up on attempts to soothe and let that one cry. It was heartbreaking but what could we do? This article, however, is not about infants, and the above scenario should not apply to preschoolers and school-age children. Once in a deep sleep, they would not ordinarily be acting terrified just to gain adult attention. Thus, should your child exhibit night terrors, please try out any and all of the solutions discussed above before “blaming the victim.”