How can we help our 8-year-old son cope with the stress that may be causing his night terrors? He is in the gifted program in school and doing very well — or is it possible he is working too hard at it?
Night terrors are classified as a kind of sleep disturbance. Adults can have them, but they mostly occur among young children. They often run in families and are more common among boys.
A night terror is an episode of partial awakening, during which the child is extremely agitated and fearful. Some children experience a gradual escalation of terror, while others seem to launch directly from a deep sleep into a state of screaming, thrashing panic.
This is not a nightmare, which occurs in a lighter phase of sleep. Children typically awaken fully after a nightmare and can recall it. Children usually don’t recognize or communicate with parents while having a night terror, and rarely remember it afterward. Approaching the child sometimes makes things worse, but sometimes comforting and soothing seem to help. After about 10 minutes or more, the episode ends and the child falls back to sleep.
We don’t know what causes night terrors. Stress, fever and infection may be triggers. Professional opinions about night terrors and how to deal with them are all over the map. Some experts advise not intervening, except to keep the child from accidentally hurting himself. Not everyone agrees with that approach.
One thing the experts do agree on is that night terrors are harmless as long as the child is protected from injury. Night terrors are generally more distressing to the parents, who watch helplessly as their child shrieks and thrashes in horror. But nearly all kids outgrow night terrors when they reach adolescence and usually well before that.
I can’t tell whether your son has too much stress in his life. Your question implies that you think he may. If so, it may be better for you to work on easing his stress a little, rather than trying to help him cope with it.
Kids need down time that’s free of clock, calendar and structured activity. Give your son time for unstructured play — preferably outdoors with other children. You don’t need to eliminate television or video games, but limit them, because they may not help reduce stress.
Tough as it is, try to make room in your routine for family time. Whether it’s eating dinner together, playing board games or reading, this should be time that’s set aside every day, so your son can depend on it. Also, consider whether he seems adequately rested. It may help to have him take a short nap after school or put him to bed a little earlier at night.