What to Do About Nightmares

Reader Question: Our 5-year-old has suddenly started waking up with nightmares. He’s not able to describe them with any clarity, however, so we don’t know what the content of them is. The most he’s able to tell us is that there are scary people chasing him.

He began having them about a month ago and has had maybe twenty since. They usually occur about three hours after we tuck him in. When they start, he begins crying or yelling in his sleep. We wake him up and he calms down fairly quickly. A couple of times he’s asked to come to our bed which we’ve allowed. There have been no recent disruptions in either our family life or his life of late, so we don’t know what’s causing them. Do you think it would be helpful to take him to see a therapist?

I don’t recommend it. In the first place, there’s no trustworthy body of evidence that would support the notion that nightmares, as a rule, are indicative of some psychological disturbance—a “repressed” trauma, for example. I used quotation marks because there is significant reason to doubt whether the Freudian concept of repression is even valid. Secondly, there’s a chance that talking to a therapist may make a mountain out of a molehill and either result in a worsening of the nightmares or lead to the development of additional problems. I base that caution not on research but on anecdotal evidence shared with me by lots of parents over the years. The efficacy of talk therapy is dicey with adults; it’s even dicier with children.

In some cases, it’s possible to associate the onset of nightmares with a difficult transition or a very upsetting circumstance, but even then it’s impossible to be sure that the event in question is the cause. The fact is, almost all children report nightmares at one time or another. More often than not, they stop as mysteriously as they started. The one clue here is your report that the nightmares occur around three hours after you put him to bed. That suggests that they are somehow related to your son’s sleep cycle, but that is nothing more than somewhat educated speculation.

In my estimation, you’re doing the right thing, including letting him come into your bed on occasion. I am not an advocate of either attachment parenting or parent-child co-sleeping except in exceptional circumstances, of which this is one. You’re also doing the right thing by waking him up and comforting him. If the nightmares get a lot worse, you might consider taking him to a sleep clinic, but I’d give that decision some time.

In other words, for the time being, just keep calm and parent on.

John Rosemond

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website at www.rosemond.com

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