How Parents Should Manage Night Terrors
Dr. Seth Meyers
Health, Wellness, & Safety
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What are night terrors? Good question! Night terrors are similar to nightmares but different in crucial ways. While most children have a nightmare from time to time, only 3-6% of children have night terrors. I can speak as a psychologist who treats them in other children and as a parent who manages them with my 9-year old son.
What night terrors look like
Night terrors are stressful and scary for parents, especially the first time it happens. The first time I saw my son having one in the middle of the night, I was totally freaked out and all my clinical knowledge flew out the window for a moment. Kids who have night terrors appear as if they are awake although they are actually in deep non-REM sleep. In the sleep cycle, the child is actually transitioning to another stage of sleep when the night terrors happen. Night terrors are physical, so you may see the child sit up and yell or scream, cry uncontrollably, or thrash in the bed. My son always makes the same verbalizations: “Oh my god, oh my God,” and he sounds absolutely terrified. This is the hallmark of the night terror: the child is in extreme distress and parents feel like there is no way to reach the child.
What parents shouldn’t do
I am sometimes hard on myself as a parent because I have this idea that I should know better because I am a therapist by profession. But so many experiences cause panic and stress in the parent, which causes all rationality and logic to momentarily escape. The mistake I made with my son’s first few night terrors was to try to talk to him and to get to the bottom of what was happening for him. “What, honey?” I would plead. “Tell me, what’s going on? It’s okay, you are fine. Tell me what’s happening!” Soon after I realized that nothing I said was getting through to him consciously, and perhaps the anxiety I felt was being transmitted to him, adding to the anxiety he already felt. In short, don’t try to “get through to” your child or to have a conversation when your child is in the middle of a night terror. They are basically asleep and they cannot talk to you as if they’re awake.
Techniques to help your child through the experience
The best thing you can do is to be there throughout the experience and help keep your child physically safe during the experience. Saying less is better, but you can pick a reassuring statement – say, “It’s okay, you’re safe, honey” – and say it quietly a few times. One trick that I use with my son that helps is to take his arm or leg and rub it, applying pressure as I rub. This can help to distract the child from the emotional experience because their body is experiencing physical stimulation. You can also try to rub his or her back or rub their hands and fingers if they will let you, but follow the child’s lead and let him or her move away from you if that’s what they feel like doing at the moment. Night terrors often last five minutes or so, and afterward, the child usually “comes to” and can see you and talk to you. Other times, the child will simply start to fall back asleep. Wait a couple of minutes after it seems to end as sometimes the terror can come back or there can be a little residual behavior that continues for a minute or two afterward.
Reminders for parents: manage your own stress
There is nothing wrong with your child if your child has night terrors. If the child functions well and gets good reports from school, trust that your child is okay. If the terrors are frequent (at least once per month or more), feel free to talk to your doctor and ask if he or she thinks it would be a good idea to go for a mental health appointment. (It never hurts to be too cautious.) Most of all, try to breathe yourself throughout the night terror to manage your own stress. The terrors last a short time, and you can go back to normal very soon!