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Tips for Dealing with Night Terrors

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When your three-year-old wakes you up in the middle of the night with a cry like, “Mommy, mommy, there’s a bear in my room!” what do you do? First of all, cries like this are only heard after the child acquires what Piaget called the “symbolic function” the ability to create symbols. This usually appears after the second year when the child is well into language. A young child who holds up a potato chip and says, ”Look Mommy, a butterfly” has created a symbol for a butterfly. Dreams require symbol formation and that is why night terrors only appear after a child has reached this stage. As in this example, the night terror usually involves what the child has recently seen (in fact, or in a book, or on TV) or heard.


Given that the child is now able to create dream symbols, how do you deal with night terrors? There are several possibilities. You might for example, take the factual approach. You might go into your child’s room, turn on all the lights, and then say, ”I am going to search for the bear and see if I can find him. I am looking under the bed, no bear there. I am looking in the closet, nope, no bear there. Now I am looking in your toy chest, nope, no bears there. I guess the bear is gone now.” You kiss your child and say, Goodnight honey, the bear has gone away.” It usually takes only a short time, however, for the bear to return and for the cry to be repeated.


Alternatively, you might take a more sympathetic approach. After turning on the lights you might say, ”Oh, I see the bear, what a nice bear. He likes me to pet him on his head. He is really a very friendly bear, but now he tells me that it is time for him to go to bed too so he is going. Goodbye bear, sleep tight.” When you look back at your child, you find that he or she is looking at you as if you had suddenly gone off your rocker. After saying good night and leaving the room the bear returns and the child cries, ”Mommy, mommy, the bear is back!”


A third approach is to by pass the bear issue, and respond to the child’s feelings, what the night terror is really all about. This is the approach advocated by psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott. Using this approach, you might give your child a hug and say, ”Your daddy and I love you very much and we are not going to let anything or anybody hurt you.” The trick here, in opposition to the other two approaches, is not to either deny or accept the child’s reality. When we accept or deny the child’s reality, we only entrench the child in his or her position. By not denying or accepting the child’s reality but responding only to the child’s fear, we by pass the question of the bear’s reality. We thus avoid the resistance created by dealing with that issue.


Neither denying nor accepting a child’s reality when it is different from your own, is an effective way of avoiding a lot of needless debate and argument. Read more about this issue in my blog post on children’s “lies.”

By Professor David Elkind 



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