Q: Our 5-year-old has started waking up with nightmares. He’s not able to describe them with clarity. The most he’s able to tell us is that scary people are chasing him. He began having them about a month ago and has had maybe 20 since. They usually occur three hours after we tuck him in. When they start, he begins crying or yelling in his sleep. We wake him, and he calms down quickly. A couple of times he’s asked to come to our bed, which we’ve allowed. There have been no recent disruptions in our family life, so we don’t know what’s causing them. Would taking him to a therapist be helpful?
A: I don’t recommend it. There’s no trustworthy evidence that supports the notion that nightmares are indicative of a psychological disturbance — a “repressed” trauma, for example. I use quotation marks because there is reason to doubt whether the Freudian concept of repression is valid. And talking to a therapist may lead to a worsening of the nightmares or the development of additional problems. I base that caution on anecdotal evidence from lots of parents over the years. The efficacy of 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 an upsetting circumstance, but even then it’s impossible to be sure. Almost all children report nightmares at one time or another. Often, they stop as mysteriously as they started. The one clue here is that the nightmares occur around three hours after you put him to bed. That suggests that they are related to your son’s sleep cycle, but that is 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 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 and comforting him. If the nightmares get worse, you might consider taking him to a sleep clinic, but I’d give that decision some time.
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For the time being, just keep calm and parent on.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his website, Rosemond.com.
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