Supporting your Child with Night Terrors

“When I looked into his eyes, it was like he wasn’t there and I truly panicked with him”

Title: What to do when your child has frequent Night Terrors

My son was 2 when he had his first night terror. Despite being a child therapist and having an in depth understanding of sleep issues, I was oblivious to what was happening. He screamed and squirmed, yelling “No, stop!” and other nonsensical things. When I reached out to comfort him, he escalated and got louder. “LEAVE ME ALONE!”, he yelled in panic. He began to swat at me and scream at Daddy. When I touched his chest, I could feel his rapid heartbeat jumping out of his skin. Many minutes passed; I felt helpless. Suddenly, I began to cry; “what is happening?”

This was just the beginning. My son would have many, many more episodes like this one. Varying in duration and intensity. As a child therapist, I thought I would know what to do. As a mother, I thought I could instinctively soothe my child at any moment in time. But, as a human, I did not have any answers. Looking back, I wish I had a parent talk with me about this mystery, but unfortunately I did not. This came much later. If you are a parent to a child with nightmares or night terrors (each one different), I hope to share some helpful information and support you through this very dark place.

Many of the health journals will describe the night terror as such: “A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but with a far more dramatic presentation. Though night terrors can be alarming for parents who witness them, they’re not usually cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue (kidshealth.org).”

These informative sites will tell you that they occur during the first 90 minutes to 2 hours after someone falls asleep during deep non-REM sleep, for a number of different reasons; 1.  The child is over tired, stressed or ill, 2. Sleeping in a new environment, or 3. Lacking sleep/fatigued. 

What they don’t tell you is that watching your child’s dazed and absent look while he screams in absolute terror is one of the most heart-breaking things to hear as a parent. They won’t tell you that the screams can get so loud that you might find the police at your doorstep answering a courtesy call that a child was screaming “Help Me!” And they might not explain that this is not in your child’s memory, so this episode is left for you to simply accept and let go of.

Here are some Insights & Supports that have been SO helpful to me & some tips as a counselor:

In the moment of the night terror, DO NOT TOUCH or wake your child.

Know and understand that your child is living a dream, unaware of your presence. The panic or terror part of this is near irrational. It is like a simple, worry thought intensified times 10. Their body is reacting from this intense, irrational place. Touch may just intensify the fear, so keep a safe distance; enough to ensure safety. Only intervene physically if your child is putting him/herself in harm’s way. Because the reasoning centers of the brain are asleep, it is nearly impossible to console a child who is having this type of parasomnia, known as a sleep terror.

Remain calm, reassure yourself that your child is okay and that this episode WILL pass.

Take care of yourself and practice self-compassion. You are not alone. Although rarer than nightmares, night terrors usually occur in children between the ages of 4 and 12. After watching these terrors on and off for years, I happened upon a young mommy in the hair salon one day who said, “I overheard your discussion about night terrors; both my son and daughter had them. Know that they will pass and that you are a good parent. First, take care of your own stress with self-soothing and then offer this to your child.”

Establish a bedtime routine that’s calming and stick to it.

Have an intentional structure to the evening. For example, no screens passed 6 pm; quiet reading or play time, bath time, tea then a story. Ensure that the bedroom environment is soothing and relaxing. Try using relaxing scents, diffusers and room sprays if that pleases your child. Avoid potentially stressful situations if at all possible just prior to bed. 

Offer encouraging, nurturing words during the terror.

During my research of many articles on night terrors, I stumbled upon only one column that emphasized the psychology behind it. I recall one of the interventions being comforting words or phrases. What if your child could still be soothed and somehow reached during this dream state. The suggestion went something like, “I’m here now and you’re safe; nothing bad will happen to you; I’m here.” I tried it and it truly seemed to make a difference. Experiment with this in a soothing voice. It’s worth a try.

Make sure that your child gets enough rest.

With night terrors, it’s imperative that lack of sleep be addressed as much as possible. Perhaps you might make bedtime earlier, gradually adding 15 minutes of extra time until you reach the desired bedtime. Add naps if possible. Talk about the importance of sleep. Read books/stories about sleep (i.e. “Little Ones Bedtime,” “The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep”). Try incorporating bedtime yoga. I highly recommend the book and youtube video by Mariam Gates, “Good Night Yoga.”

Reduce your child’s stress.

Evaluate your child’s ability to manage the stress in his/her life. Notice if there is anything in his/her life that might be increasing fear or worry. Talk about it together. Introduce stories and teach coping tools about stress management.

My secret bedtime empowerment tool*

As an art therapist, I often use creative visualizations with children and adults to help bring that person to a relaxed state. Years ago, I began utilizing an intervention that has proven highly effective time and time again. 

1. THINK and CREATE your own ARMY of POWER. We all need guardians. Bigger than friends. UNIQUE to each one of us.

What person, animal, or object do you pick to be a symbol of:

STRENGTH, POWER: Think of the strongest, most powerful thing you can imagine. What would you take to protect you in the scariest darkest of places?

 2. Place your picture next to your bed. Each night, close your eyes and imagine them all here. Working for YOU. By your side.

3. BRING your protector WITH YOU IN YOUR DREAMS. It is your weapon, your POWER. It is ALWAYS WITH YOU. Ask for it WHENEVER YOU NEED it. 

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