- The difference between nightmares and night terrors
- How parents can help children with night terrors
- How parents can help children having nightmares
- Advice for adults having nightmares
- Specialist help and other ideas
1. The difference between nightmares and night terrors
Nightmares and night terrors are similar in some respects, but with some key differences:
Many adults do still get nightmares, even if it’s younger children between the ages of 3 and 6 years who tend to experience them most often.
They occur during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep, which is why they tend to happen later in the night.
People don’t usually move or make noises when having a nightmare. But when you wake up you might remember it all too clearly, perhaps still feeling anxious or scared.
The main difference is that you don’t usually wake up from a night terror, though you may have some recollection of feeling scared in the morning.
So it’s often someone else, particularly a child’s parent, who has to deal with the unpleasantness of the experience.
Usually occurring in children between 4 and 12 years old, they might suddenly start screaming, moving around in bed erratically, rolling, kicking or lashing out.
They could even sit upright and look awake during the episode, though they won’t respond if you talk to them or touch them.
Despite how disturbing it can be to witness someone expressing terror like this, fortunately, the child will usually settle down again after a few minutes.
Night terrors occur during the non-REM stage of sleep, specifically during slow-wave sleep which is also known as deep sleep. This usually occurs an hour or two after falling asleep.
Not to be confused with other sleep disorders
In the middle of the night, it can be easy to confuse one bizarre or unpleasant experience with another. Perhaps the most terrifying of all is sleep paralysis. This is thought to occur when your body is still shut down but your brain is awake.
It often results in feeling like something evil is crushing you or that a dark presence is in the room with you. For more on this, have a look at my article discussing sleep paralysis.
Another rare sleep disorder, which takes the prize for the best name is exploding head syndrome. This can be very disturbing and involves hearing a loud noise in your head, which could be like a screaming, slamming, explosion or any other loud noise.
And if your child regularly wakes up saying they can see things in the dark, like spiders or creatures moving around, it may be that they are having the very common experience of sleep hallucinations.
2. How parents can help children with night terrors
The possible causes
As happens so often in the world of sleep, the exact causes of sleep terrors are still not clear.
One of the most common theories is that they are caused by the Central Nervous System CNS) being too active during sleep.
The CNS is a regulator of brain activity when awake and asleep, and is still maturing during childhood, so perhaps hasn’t quite perfected the art of keeping the brain from getting too excited at night.
Scientists also believe that a child is more likely to experience night terrors if they are stressed or worried about something. Other possible factors are a lack of sleep, and a change to the child’s sleep schedule or daily routine.
What parents can do
Parents can try the following to help stop their child’s night terrors:
- Don’t try to wake the child up during an episode of night terrors. Just wait patiently with them until they settle down naturally.
- If the child is thrashing about, make sure they don’t hit themselves or injure themselves.
- Talk to them during the day to see if anything is particularly worrying or stressing them which you can then work on.
- Make sure they have a stable and positive bedtime routine and set bedtimes.
- Make sure they get enough sleep and aren’t getting too tired.
- You can also take the advice from the next section about nightmares.
3. How parents can help children having nightmares
The cause of nightmares for children or adults is still not completely understood, though the experts do have some ideas.
It’s perhaps easier to look at theories about why we dream in general, whether it’s what we would call a good or a bad dream. One of the most common theories is that it’s a way we deal with the complexities of life and of being human.
Our dreams are one way we process thoughts and feelings about what is going on in our lives. It’s also a way to deal with worries, concerns, anxieties, and fears we may have.
This helps explain why children particularly might experience nightmares when there are major changes or events happening in their lives. For example events at school, the birth or death of family members, moving house or arguing parents.
They can also occur after traumatic events such as accidents and injuries or horrible events they might witness. And of course, as many of us know, watching, reading or hearing about something scary can also trigger nightmares.
What parents can do
Whilst it may not be possible for parents to stop nightmares completely for their children, you can take some steps to help them relax and feel like sleep is a good thing:
- Ensure they have a regular bedtime and consistent bedtime routine.
- Spend time with them before bed doing something that makes them feel happy, secure and cozy. For example, a bath, reading a book, snuggling or talking about the day.
- Make sure their bed is comfy, cozy, warm but not hot, and peaceful. Having a favorite soft-toy or night light can help.
- Don’t let them watch or read anything scary before bed, or play any games which can be scary or make them anxious.
- Read one of many excellent children’s books written specifically to help kids with anxiety about monsters and the dark. Searching online will reveal many lists of great examples of these!
What you can do if a child wakes up scared from a nightmare
Unlike sleep terrors, a child may well wake up from a nightmare and understandably be worried about falling asleep again.
In fact, adults may also experience this after a horrible dream. You can do the following to help them settle back down:
- Talk about what happened, tell them it’s a bad dream, but reassure them that it wasn’t real and isn’t going to happen in the real world. This only needs to be a brief conversation, but just some words of comfort can go a long way.
- Let them know you are there, and that they are safe with you there.
- Let them know it’s normal to have a bad dream and that everyone has them sometimes.
- You can provide reassurance by checking everywhere in the room for monsters.
- Switch on some ambient lighting or a night light.
- Make sure they have a favorite teddy-bear, blanket or comforter.
- The next day it might also help to bring it up again to help deal with it. You could also bring it into the art world with some drawing to make it seem less scary, or perhaps even some role play to make the monster or whatever it might have been seem silly, fun and less threatening.
On a final note, don’t forget that you can always consult a doctor if your child is having nightmares or night terrors to the extent that it’s disturbing their daily life, mood, development or health.
They may be able to refer you to a specialist who’ll hopefully find a way to help your family further. This can be particularly useful if the child is having recurrent nightmares, or is having them as a result of a traumatic event.
4. How to stop nightmares as an adult
Having nightmares as an adult is nothing to be ashamed of – I’ve had all kinds of bizarre and unpleasant nightmares over the years.
There are a few things which are known to possibly trigger nightmares, so you can start by having a think about whether these apply to you or not:
- Drinking alcohol, especially late in the evening.
- Too much caffeine, again late in the day especially.
- Taking recreational drugs.
- Smoking cigarettes before bed.
- Doing heavy exercise shortly before bed.
- Watching or playing a violent or scary film or computer game in the evening.
- Eating late at night. Even small bedtime snacks can trigger nightmares.
- An illness which induces a fever.
- Breathing disorders in sleep, such as apnea. If you have any breathing problems when you sleep, it’s essential you consult a doctor about it.
In addition to the above ideas, here are some other points you might like to consider which could help:
- Some medications can cause nightmares. You can check the known side effects online or ask for your doctor’s advice.
- Stress, anxiety, and worry are often the main cause of nightmares in adults. We have a large section on relaxation exercises which you might find helpful to do before bed.
- It may be that you’re experiencing major changes or issues in your daily life. Moving house, relationship issues, money or work issues, and traumatic experiences could all trigger nightmares. Talk to family or friends, or seek professional help if you’re finding something in your life overwhelming.
- As with kids, having a stable sleep schedule can be helpful.
- It can help to do some exercise every day, even if it’s just a walk.
- Keep the bedroom cool. If your room or bed is too hot it’s more likely you’ll have a disturbed sleep.
- Keep a dream and nightmare diary. Recording what you experience can sometimes help to make it seem less out of control.
- Try to do some positive thinking or visualization while you lie in bed. Some people believe you can influence your dreams purely by telling yourself what you want to dream about.
5. Specialist help
In addition to the advice above, there are a few other possibilities you might like to try, especially if you’ve tried all the ideas so far listed, but seen no improvements.
Ask for a referral to a sleep specialist or sleep center
If you’re finding that your nightmares are interfering with your daily life and functioning, it may be time for specialist help. Your doctor may be able to refer you to a sleep specialist or clinic if you’re lucky enough to have one available.
There is a sleep disorder called nightmare disorder, and this may require professional help. They may prescribe you certain medications such as Prazosin or Clonidine. Or they may try talking therapy such as Imagery Rehearsal Therapy.
If you don’t have access to such specialists or want to find out more, then this best practice guide outlines the current treatments for nightmare disorder.
Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT)
IRT is gaining popularity as a treatment for people who experience recurring nightmares as part of having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It falls under the umbrella of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and involves working with a therapist to try to change your dreams by visualizing them happening differently while awake.
It’s also thought that it can help people who just have recurring bad dreams, even without the PTSD element. Whilst it’s better to do this with a therapist, it can also be tried alone.
The main problem appears not to be whether it works though, but that it’s so simple it almost seems ridiculous that something so intense could be controlled so easily. There are 3 basic steps to trying IRT yourself:
- Write down a summary of the recurring dream, or the most recent nightmare you’ve had.
- Think of a way the nightmare can be changed to be less frightening. You should use your intuition to work out how to do this.
- Spend a few minutes every day visualizing your improved version of the nightmare.
It sounds so simple it’s almost an insult to the power your nightmares have over you. But it’s been proven to be very successful, so it may well be worth a shot.
Lucid Dreaming and embracing your nightmares
There have been some reports that lucid dreaming treatment (LDT) can be an effective way to stop nightmares, for example, this study in the McGill University in Canada.
The idea is that you can train yourself to become aware that you are in the middle of a dream or nightmare, and then either alter it or wake yourself up.
If that idea interests you, then even further than that is the idea of actually embracing you nightmares through lucid dreaming and using them as a tool for spiritual and/or psychological growth.
The following video, which was originally on a TEDtalk, explains this idea in a very entertaining and fascinating way:
It’s not all bad – nightmares and creativity
Whilst it might not provide you with a huge amount of comfort, there’s an interesting theory which suggests a positive side to nightmares.
Some scientists believe that there may be a link between dreaming and how creative you are. A study from the Dream Laboratory at the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal, published in the sleep medicine journal, looked at a group of 28 people.
Some suffered regular nightmares and they compared them to people who didn’t have nightmares or at least didn’t report so.
They used word association techniques before and after sleep. They concluded that the nightmare sufferers displayed characteristics associated with creativity:
NM sufferers may access broader than normal emotional semantic networks in the wake state, a difference that may lead to this group being perceived as more creative.
As is often the case it’s not clear if nightmares help creativity or more creative and emotionally sensitive people are more prone to nightmares.
Either way, it might provide some solace to know that your nightmares could be a sign that you have an above average creative mind!
What kind of nightmares do you or your child have? What do you find makes them more or less frequent? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.