Fantasy and Reality Children Can Not Tell the Difference
Halloween will be celebrated very soon, on October 31. During this time of year, it’s up to parents, caregivers, friends, and family to keep Bogeyman / Boogieman at bay from young children.
Not many people know why we dress up every Halloween and terrify each other. Let me explain, Halloween originates from pagan festivals held annually around the end of October in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Many people believed that during this time, the spirits of the dead would come ‘alive’ and walk among the living. They thought in order to avoid being harmed, it was important to dress up in costumes to “blend in” with the spirits or mimic them.
If your child under 7 years of age is afraid of people wandering the streets dressed as ghosts and goblins. Do not worry, you are not alone. Up until this age, their brains can not distinguish between fantasy and reality. They have not yet developed Cognitive Developmental reasoning; therefore they can not grasp concrete logic or mentally manipulate information. So if they see a person in costume dressed as a monster, they see a monster, not the person.
When your child has experienced Halloween and the outcome of it was frightening and scary for them. The likely result at bedtime will be a nightmare, which is an unpleasant and terrifying dream. Nightmares occur during the second half of a night’s sleep when REM intervals are longer. (REM is known as Rapid Eye Movement because the eyes are rapidly moving beneath closed eyelids.) As soon as your child wakes they can remember and describe the dream, so it is understandable for them to call out for comfort, want to sleep in your room or need an object of affection that makes them feel safe.
How do I handle my Child’s Nightmare?
From personal experience, last year Halloween (October 2011), my husband answered the door to trick-or-treat children who were dressed up as ghosts and scary monsters. Unfortunately, our Daughter was behind him and saw them, she was very frightened and witnessed this just before her bedtime. So you imagine what her night was like! Every day for the remainder of the week she would run away and hide every time the doorbell rang.
Nightmares are scary and are very uncomfortable for children, but they preventable. After a nightmare your child may or may not go back to sleep easily depending on their age and how scary the dream was. To help them relax and associate bedtime with safety and comfort, please follow the advice I used for my own daughter:
- 2 hours before bedtime – Do not let your child watch, read, listen or participate in activities that will disturb them or get them over-excited, as this will form the basis for their night’s sleep.
- Preparation for bed – Ensure your child is comfortable and relaxed, not highly stimulated. Talk about pleasurable and happy topics such as holidays or things they like to do. As part of my bedtime routine with my daughter, I twirl like a fairy and sprinkle magic fairy dust all over her. This reassures her and lets her feel protected against her nightmares.
- After a nightmare – Listen to what your child has to say when they explain the dream and tell you about the monsters. Acknowledge their fears let them know you believe and trust them. Console and comfort your child, and make them feel safe by telling them something like “the monsters have gone away now, they are on holiday.” If necessary check the wardrobe and under the bed, and let them know their room is clean and harmless to sleep in.
Night Terrors are very different from Nightmares. Every child’s experience of a night terror differs, but usually, they can not be woken from sleep, they may scream, thrash about, sit bolt upright in bed, sweat, act upset, and may not recognise you when trying to comfort them. Do not fret or worry, so long as your child is in a physically safe environment they are not in any danger or harm and will not have any memory of their behaviour the next morning. It is far more frightening to witness, as the parent or care provider, you are unable to help or stop what seems like torment for your child.
Night terrors occur when a child’s sleep transitions from the deepest phase of (non-REM) sleep to lighter (REM) sleep, a phase where dreams occur. Between sleep cycles, your child wake’s briefly, then usually self-settles and goes back to sleep. The night terror is when their mind is trying to go back to sleep, but part of their mind is trying to wake up, both trying to win.
The reasons or triggers for night terrors can be due to:
- Over tired
- Reaction to new medication
- Sleeping in a new environment or away from home
How do I handle my child’s Night Terror?
- Prior to Bedtime – Same as the nightmare preparations, ensure your child is relaxed and stress reduced to the minimum.
- Bedtime – Your child should not be over-tired, fatigued, or have stayed up to late.
- During/After the Night Terror – Do not try and wake your child, as it can be distressing for you when they remain in the same state. If you are able to awaken your child, they are likely to be disoriented and confused, therefore taking longer to settle down and go back to sleep.
- Repetitive Night Terror – If the night terrors occur frequently and at the same time every night, you may find that waking your child breaks the cycle. This can disrupt their sleep pattern enough to stop the attacks without affecting sleep quality.
For most children, nightmares and night terrors happen only now and then so there is no cause for concern. If you need further help, I encourage you to download my comprehensive guide “The Five Steps To Getting Your Baby To Sleep Through The Night!” You can also contact me.