Banishing the boogeyman: Tips for parents whose children have night frights

Jessica Young

Nightlights weren’t cutting it. And Dorothy Daniele just couldn’t figure out what else to do to demystify all that goes bump in the night for her toddler son, who was having bad dreams for a long spell.

“Joseph would sleep on the farthest edge of the bed, and he even fell off a few times. And he’d wake up crying a lot,” said the Darien mother. “Then eventually, I just happened to ask him the right questions and discovered that, with his bed pushed up against the wall, he was afraid something was going to sneak through that crack and get him. Even though it wasn’t conducive to the layout of his room, we moved the bed to be perpendicular to the wall, and he has slept great ever since.”

Mike Davenport of Downers Grove said his 9-year-old son, Wes, also used to get nightmares after watching storm and tornado segments on the Weather Channel.

“Or the kids have dreamt that something happened to my wife or me,” he said. “Just disturbing stuff that you can’t necessarily reason them out of believing. So you walk them back to their room, tuck them in, and give a hug and kiss.”

Confronted with cold sweats, crying, a racing pulse and sheer dread in a scared toddler, the urge to comfort is undeniable. Though the episodes are part of the normal developmental process, it’s often as distressing for the adults, who helplessly stand by as their child conjures up and fights fictional demons.

According to a longitudinal study conducted by Bill Tramini that appeared in the medical journal “Pediatrics,” 62 percent of children have regular nightmares, or one every two weeks, during preschool age.

“It’s a pretty common phenomenon, and most families are going to experience them,” said Dr. Eva Wyrwa, a DuPage Medical Group pediatrician working out of offices in Glen Ellyn, Wheaton, Naperville and Bloomingdale. “The child is waking up, bolting out of bed and is able to, after the panic has subsided, relate vivid stories with imagery about what was happening.”

These bad dreams usually occur after midnight during REM sleep cycles, Wyrwa said. This is a different animal than night terrors, experienced by only 6 percent of children. Terror episodes occur pre-midnight and mostly in children ages 2 to 6.

“These are the instances where the kids are screaming like a banshee and wake up confused, disoriented and have no recollection of what they were dreaming,” Wyrwa explained. “They’re often unaware of their parents’ presence and inconsolable.”

Parents have to closely study how their child is responding to bad dreams for cues on which sleep dysfunction is plaguing the little one. Night terrors can be tied to bed wetting or sleep walking and are often triggered by illness, stress or sleep deprivation.

Dr. Anna Ivanenko, a child psychologist and pediatric medicine director at Central DuPage Hospital, said parents often mistake terrors for bad dreams and should differentiate between the two because of the differing approaches to consoling a child.

“You don’t intervene with terrors because you only make it worse. They often get combative if you approach while they’re in this state,” she said. “You’re only going to try to wake them to ensure their safety if they’re thrashing around wildly and you’re worried they’ll injure themselves.”

Why?

Depending on a child’s predisposition, sleep arousal disorders — like nightmares and terrors — can be triggered by stress and vary in frequency and intensity, Ivanenko said.

But what causes the monsters to emerge once the lights go out?

Dr. Kathy Sexton-Radek, a clinical psychologist at the Suburban Pulmonary and Sleep Associates in Westmont, said the dreamland difference between adults and children are based on maturity level in how sleep is regulated.

“That structure of their brain had a wrinkle,” she said. “They’re at a high level of arousal because of stress — whether they didn’t get picked for the kickball team or saw ‘Monsters, Inc.’ and the fantasy and reality worlds are not demarcated yet for them.”

For older children, worrisome thoughts of being ill-prepared for class or being seen as incompetent are stressors.

“Also, other things will wander into nightmares like a recent emergency on the news,” Sexton-Radek said. “Something tumultuous like a plane crash or flooding can manifest itself, so minimize their exposure to things like that or offer ventilation, processing and explanation.”

Transitional times — like toilet training, starting school or sleeping at Dad’s house for the first time after the divorce — can all activate unpleasant dreams.

Hugs & Kisses

But once it happens, how should parents handle the situation? Let clinginess take hold or march the child back and let them cry it out?

“You want to reassure them, but stay away from any heavy philosophical discussions,” Wyrwa said. “Leave a transitional item like a blankie or stuffed animal there to help ‘protect’ them with mom and dad out of the room.”

More creative solutions are also tried and true.

“At age 2 or so, their magical thinking starts, so you can use that in your arsenal of tricks,” she said. “Sprinkle some glitter on a teddy bear and pretend like that’s a monster chaser charm.”

Sexton-Radek has similar ideas.

“Get a spray bottle of water and call it monster juice or repellent,” she said. “Say ‘Where do I spray?’ and then offer to leave the door halfway open.”

A dreamcatcher hung in the child’s bedroom has worked well for “filtering” nightmares for Ivanenko’s patients.

But whatever the strategy, parents should avoid causing separation anxiety by pretending to stay with the child but cutting out when their eyelids get heavy.

“Establish all of the details: ‘As soon as it’s all clear and you fall asleep, I’m going to go back,’” Sexton-Radek said. “Consistency is key, and you want to develop a continuum if it continues. That way, the child learns that it’s OK to wake you up after a horrific nightmare, but maybe they can make do with getting themselves a drink of water for something that just gave them a start.”

In the meantime, Davenport remains sympathetic to the plight of his four young ones, who are still unable to discern figments of their imagination from the real world.

“I used to have recurring nightmares that I was being buried alive, and it was horrific,” he said. “Later, I realized it was connected to a time when I was getting stitches and got put under anesthesia with a medical cheesecloth. That memory was terrible, and I remember that feeling when I’m comforting my own kids. You need to give a lot of parental love.”