For the last 5 weeks, my nine-year-old daughter has been having night terrors, and when I ask her she said it’s the same dream night after night. She says she dreams she walks down to the kitchen and no matter what cupboard she opens they are all filled with spiders. There’s no food, cups and glasses or any of the usual stuff in the cupboards – instead, every cupboard is filled with spiders – big ones and small ones. She says the spiders crawl out and get on her. She then shakes and screams for over an hour because she’s convinced they are crawling up her legs and stomach. My daughter is now petrified of bedtime.
She has started stripping all her clothes off because she thinks the spiders are on her and she won’t let me put her covers over her when I try and calm her. She will lie under like a fleece blanket but won’t put her head back on the pillow. She’ll position herself in the centre of the bed with the blanket and it can take anywhere from half an hour to an hour some nights to settle her.
I honestly have no idea where this fear has come from or what I should do.
Losing sleep over your child’s night terrors is a nightmare for parents too! But, the first thing the consultant will probably do is try to figure out if your child is having a night terror…or a nightmare. That’s important because they are two very different problems with very different solutions.
Is my child having a night terror or a nightmare?
During night terrors, a child will wake up seeming upset or agitated. These episodes usually last for just a minute or two and then end with your child returning to deep sleep. We call these terrors, but we don’t even know if children are experiencing the type of fear we call terror. What we do know is that nothing parents do during an episode seems to help. These disruptions last 5 to 15 minutes (or occasionally longer). In the end, kids just fall back to sleep or awaken, dazed, with no recollection of the event. Nightmares, on the other hand, are all drama with very little action, so even though there may be a riot of thoughts and visions going on in the dream, the body stays still. Unlike sleep terrors, nightmares are definitely upsetting to children. They can cause a child to fear falling asleep, which is what it sounds like your daughter is experiencing.
In your daughter’s case, it seems likely that she is having nightmares not night terrors. So, how can you support her?
Listen to your child’s fears – however irrational
First, you’ll want to show your daughter that you take her fears seriously. Connect with respect when talking about what’s scaring her. Though your daughter’s fears may seem illogical to us grownups (we know that the cabinets aren’t filled with spiders), if you’re too quick to brush them off, she may feel more alone…and more frightened when she needs you most. Before you rush to reassure her that there aren’t any icky buggies hiding in the kitchen, invest some of your time into listening and showing that you really care.
One way to do this is to use the Fast-Food Rule. This rule says that the “hungriest” person gets to speak first—this means that you listen to your daughter and then repeat back her fears before jumping in with your own input. (You can read more about the Fast-Food Rule here.) However, what you say isn’t as important as how you say it. You’ll really help your daughter feel heard and understood by mirroring about one-third of her emotion in your tone, expression, and gestures.
Find out if there’s a wider issue you need to deal with
In addition to opening the door for her to talk about her nightmares, see if you can figure out if anything else is troubling her, like being bullied or even abused in some way. Nightmares can also pop up when kids are holding back angry or sad feelings about something else they’re experiencing or have seen…either in real life or on a frightening TV show.
Getting to the heart of her upset can help you better address them. But it is not always easy to figure it all out and oftentimes a therapist can be a big help if the problem is causing a recurrent sleep disturbance and stressing the child and the entire family.
Perfect your child’s bedtime routine
To prevent sleep disturbances, make sure you’re sticking to a regular bedtime. Use a predictable, calming bedtime routine every night. An hour before bed, put on soothing music, and dim the lights to keep your daughter in a relaxed state of mind. Avoid rough-housing, TV, and stimulants (like chocolate, caffeinated drinks, antihistamines, or decongestants) in that golden hour. Try using low, rumbly white noise while she sleeps.
If your daughter’s still receptive to a little “magic,” you could offer her a protective lovey (teddy bear) or charm, like a special bracelet or dreamcatcher to keep nightmares away. You could use a night light or put a photo by her bedside of her favorite protectors (like Mum, Dad, or a superhero). Or, even sleep in her room for a week or so, until things get better. You might even add to her bedtime routine applying to her whole body a pretend, invisible, spider-protection suit that spiders hate because it is very smelly to them (even though we can’t smell it). It may sound silly, but for some kids, these little things can make big, overwhelming fears feel conquerable! Speaking of magic…
Teach mindfulness and breathing
Teach your daughter magic breathing. Calm breathing helps kids learn to keep their panic under control. Here’s how to do it: Have her relax the muscles in her face. Have her breathe along with you. Start with a few faster breaths (two counts in, two counts out). Then, have her begin to take longer and longer breaths, working up to five counts…or even 10. These deep, slow breaths can help her find a sense of peace when her fears creep in. I recommend practicing once or twice every day, especially when she is otherwise happy and not anxious.
But what should you do during an episode? Go to her quickly when she is upset, hug her and repeat a comforting phrase, like “You’re safe, Mummy’s here.”
Nightmares are frightening for everyone involved, but by listening to your daughter’s fears and sticking with a relaxing, comforting nighttime routine, you can make going to bed less scary for her. And, of course, every child is different, so you’ve got the right idea by also consulting your daughter’s healthcare provider. I hope sweeter dreams are in your family’s future!
Article by Dr. Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, CEO, Happiest Baby