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What Causes Your Child’s Nightmare?
Sexual stimulation at this age of a teenager can also lead to serious anxieties and nightmares. Your child could have overt contact from a visitor, sibling or peer or simply witness or hear parents during intercourse that he does not understand and may perceive as violent and aggressive. Or he may feel conflicts stemming from his desire to replace his father, or a girl her mother, as the other parent’s partner. Such anxieties can be further stimulated when the child is allowed to sleep in the parents’ bed of course.
Martin, a five-year-old boy I saw, came into his parents’ bed every night, crawled between them and started kicking until he literally kicked his father out of bed. His father would then go into the son’s bedroom to sleep. For the father it was the easiest thing and he slept more, but Martin did not sleep well at all and had many nightmares about threatening monsters.
When I discussed the situation with the parents, they agreed that it would be better to insist that Martin always return to his own bed, and Martin (despite initial protests and struggles) was ultimately much more comfortable with that kind of control. After a while his nightmares disappeared completely.
Your child at this age may also struggle to understand the concept of death, and he may have serious concerns about falling asleep and never waking up. Harold, aged six, never had any difficulty sleeping until he went to his uncle’s wake. He was told not to worry because his uncle would ‘look just as he sleeps’, and in fact the boy learned that the uncle had ‘died in his sleep’. Harold’s nightmares after that experience were clearly related to his worry about death and his confusion between sleep, death and the risk of dying while sleeping. After Harold was encouraged to talk more openly about his feelings regarding his uncle’s death and funeral, and after his parents corrected some of his misconceptions through discussion and by reading him a book about death written for children, Harold’s bad dreams disappeared. .
Frequent nightmares are not common between the ages of seven and eleven. The conflicts of the previous years should then have been largely controlled or “suppressed”, and new tensions are likely to be more easily handled. If your child continues to have nightmares, he may still be struggling with conflicts that were not resolved at an earlier age.
During puberty and during adolescence significant new conflicts and anxieties emerge. As your child gradually becomes an adult, physically, sexually, emotionally and cognitively, he has to face many stresses every day. There seems to be a slight increase in nightmares at this time, although it’s hard to say for sure because teenagers are less likely to talk to other family members about their dreams or wake them up during the night.
Nightmares are part of the normal process of growing up. Because nightmares are dreams, they must occur in REM sleep. Although REM sleep is abundant in newborn babies and is associated with eye movements and smiles, we do not know whether some of the images, sounds, sensations or thoughts of dreaming are also present at birth or whether actual dreaming does not appear until later in the first year. But dreams, and even nightmares, undoubtedly occur during the second year of life, a fact that gradually becomes evident as the child develops speech and therefore the ability to describe them.
A one-year-old’s nightmare is likely to be of simple content. Typically a child will recreate and re-experience a recent frightening event. Although a one-year-old cannot describe his dream well, he may be verbal enough to suggest that he just dreamed about a recent blood test, a car accident, or a bee sting. Your child at this age does not understand the difference between a dream and reality and therefore, upon waking up, will not understand that “the dream” is over. He may continue to fear, acting as if the threat of the dream is still present. For example, he can be convinced that the bee is still in the room by saying, “Buzzing here”.
At the age of two, dreams are clearly more symbolic, and monsters or wild animals will usually represent your child’s impulses and fears. At this age he begins to understand the concept of a dream, but not well enough to fully appreciate the difference between dreaming and reality. He may admit to “dreaming” of a monster yet still insists that “the monster is not gone yet”.
As your child grows, his dreams become more complex. At the same time he becomes gradually more able to distinguish dreams from the real world. Around the age of five he may wake up from a dream with an immediate and full understanding that “I just had a dream.” It will still be harder for him to reach this point after waking up from a nightmare. Your child’s ability to accept a dream as “just a dream” continues to develop, and by age seven he may even be able to deal with an occasional nightmare without waking anyone up for support.
However, waking up from a nightmare, the feeling of fear is very real. As one child said: ‘Mom, I know what happened in the dream wasn’t real, but the dream was real!’ He knows he only had a dream, but he still feels the fear that was associated with it. Rationally he knows nothing happened but emotionally he is not so sure. So Betsy, an eleven-year-old girl, had to get up during the night to check that her younger brother was okay after dreaming that he was dead. This, even though she “knew” full well that it was “just a dream”.
So if you are looking for tips on how to improve a child’s sleep habits, please click: Child Sleep
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