Night Terrors

Night Terrors

What are night terrors?

Night terrors can be very frightening and confusing, often more so for the parent who has to deal with them than the child who actually experiences them.

Night terrors are medically known as confusional arousals and they are thought to affect about 15% of toddler and pre-school children. They typically occur in the first third of the night and are more common among children who are over-tired or who have experienced a severe physical or emotional upheaval in their lives.

How do they start?

A night terror will usually begin with the child moaning and moving about. It then progresses quickly to the child crying out or screaming and thrashing about wildly. They may sit up, wide-eyed and staring at some non-existent ‘monster’ in the corner of the room. Although the child will appear to be awake, he is not really conscious and it may be extremly difficult, if not impossible, to arouse them fully to consciousness so that you can comfort them.

Many parents who have experienced the truly terrifying and upsetting experience of a night terror often describe their child as acting like they are possessed, and this is not an over-exaggeration. A child in a night terror may stare right through one or both parents or they may actually involve their parents in their terrifying fantasy and lash out at them, sometimes with great force and considerable violence.

How can a night terror be handled?

There is something quite eerie about a child who looks awake, yet is not fully conscious and may not even be aware of a parent who is holding them in a vain effort to provide comfort. This sense of fear is infectious and the most important thing for you as a parent is to quell your own fear so that you can adequately deal with the imagined fears of your child.

Is darkness a factor?

If a child experiences a night terror in a darkened room, the first thing a parent should do is switch on all the lights. Not only will this help to steady their own nerves, but it may also dispel whatever ‘monsters’ the child imagines he is seeing on the wall or in the corner of his room.

If a child has ever experienced a night terror, it is a good idea to install a night light in his room so that he does not go to bed in complete darkness in future.

Communicating with the child

It can be very difficult to communicate with a child who is experiencing a night terror as they will not be fully awake. Arguing with the child about how unreasonable their behaviour is and trying to reassure them that there is nothing in the room will not help at all.

The best way to try to reach the child is to soothe them in a gentle tone. If the child is conscious of anything, they will only be aware of the tone of the voice and this may allow them to drift back into normal sleep without ever knowing what has happened.

Should the child be woken up?

The simple answer is no. A child who is experiencing a night terror will normally drift back into a quiet sleep without too much difficulty and will have little or no memory of the events which have taken place. If any memory persists, it will usually be in the form of a vague feeling of being trapped or being chased.

Are night terrors like nightmares?

There is no connection whatsoever between night terrors and nightmares. Nightmares usually occur during the second half of the night, when dreaming is most concentrated, and a child who wakes up after a nightmare will have a very vivid recollection of their ‘scary dream.’ They will also be able to recognise a parent and be reassured by their presence. Unlike night terrors, a child may be very fearful following a nightmare and may have great trouble getting back to sleep again.

Is there any treatment?

There is no specific treatment for a child who is prone to night terrors, but it is worthwhile trying to avoid letting the child become over-tired and keeping the wake/sleep pattern as regular as possible.

If a night terror does occur, parents should remember the following points:

  • Do not try to wake the child. It is not dangerous to do so but it may considerably prolong the agony for both parent and child.
  • Although the natural instinct will be to hold the child in an effort to soothe it, this is best avoided if possible. The subjective experience of a child in a night terror is one of being trapped or caged, so grabbing hold of them may make them struggle all the more.
  • Try to ignore any verbal abuse from the child. During a night terror the child is not fully awake and conscious and is therefore not aware of their actions.
  • Try to relax and quell your own fears by switching on all lights. Speak calmly, slowly and repetitively and your soothing words will probably cause the child to drift back into a peaceful sleep.
  • Protect the child from injury by standing against sharp edges on furniture and standing between the child and any windows in the room.
  • In very exceptional cases where night terrors are happening on a very regular basis, (or more particularly in the case of adolescents who experience what are termed as true night terrors) medication, hypnotherapy or other forms of relaxation exercises may be recommended.

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