Nightmares and What to Do about Them
Night Terrors: Treatment
If night terror attacks frequently disrupt the household, consult a pediatrician or sleep center. Sometimes neurological tests are recommended. Rarely, a mild epilepsy is indicated. Tests are usually, but not always, negative.
Mild tranquilizers, drugs that suppress deep sleep, may sometimes be prescribed. We know little about the long term effect of these drugs, however, and parents should proceed with caution. When night terrors are subsequent to concussions or other traumatic head injury, temporary use of drugs may be indicated.
Sleep expert Roger Broughton postulates that emotional conflicts erupt in night terrors when defenses are at their ebb in the deepest stage of sleep. Another dream expert, Rosalind Cartwright, says that when children do have some recall of the content of their night terror, the image is often of an animal about to attack. Adults, too, when they remember what created their dreadful anxiety, report being the target of murderous aggression; the ensuing panic is the terror of death. For example, Cartwright observed in her laboratory a man undergoing a night terror. He stared at what he thought was a man aiming a gun at him.
One child who suffered from night terrors was heard to repeat the word “seven” during his attacks. It was never determined what significance the term seven had for the child. If your child suffers night terrors and says anything that is coherent, note it carefully. It may provide a clue for unraveling part of the tangled ball of terror.
William Dement, who coined the term REM (Rapid Eye Movements), and who heads a clinic for sleep disorders at Stanford University in California, is of the strong opinion that night terrors, or any of the disorders of partial arousal, should not be treated in children. He feels that most treatments are ineffective and make the child unnecessarily anxious. Patience, he says, is the only cure.
Oddly enough, at the same time that many experts advise parents that most children outgrow night terrors and nothing needs to be done, other experts give advice to adult victims of night terrors to increase their sense of security. They suggest locking windows and putting on night-lights to make the victim feel safer.
In fact, it seems to me that any activity, or series of activities, that parents can take to increase the child’s sense of security and well-being is worthwhile.
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