- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

Children's nightmares can be so recurrent and so real that the Walt Disney Co. recently devoted a whole movie to them. In the recently released "Monsters, Inc.," there is a parallel universe of beasts that make a living by creeping out of the closet and into the scary dreams of little ones.

OK, so in reality monsters don't live inside the closet. They still, however, are found in the dreams.

But give a child an empowering image, and he just might be able to chase that monster away, says Alan B. Siegel, a California psychologist and author of "Dreamcatching: Every Parent's Guide to Exploring and Understanding Children's Dreams and Nightmares."

"When a child wakes up from a nightmare, don't just dismiss it and say, 'It was only a dream,'" Mr. Siegel says. "You do want to reassure and soothe, however. What a child needs to know is that you are there and you can do something to make him feel better."

Getting children to envision helping themselves, such as catching a monster with a butterfly net or getting rid of the bad guys with an eject button or a magic wand might help the nightmare evolve, he says.

Mr. Siegel cautions parents against using an image of killing to defeat anyone, however.

"There already is so much death and violence, even in fairy tales," he says. "It is good to find nonviolent ways to resolve nightmares."

Parents should be advised that resolution of the dream doesn't necessarily mean the entire problem has been solved. Sometimes children have nightmares as a result of other problems, such as stress, being bullied at school, tension in the home or psychological problems. It is important to be aware of that possibility and look for underlying issues that might be causing the nightmares, Mr. Siegel says.

Parents also should know the difference between nightmares and night terrors. Night terrors, most common in children ages 3 to 7, are a disorder of partial sleep arousal. The child is catapulted awake from a state of deep sleep, rather than moving gradually through lighter stages of sleep, says Patricia Garfield, author of "Your Child's Dreams."

The child may appear to be awake and in a state of extreme terror, Ms. Garfield says. Most children will not remember the episode and most will outgrow night terrors without treatment, she says. Sleep researchers do not exactly know what causes night terrors.

Symptoms of a night terror include screaming, racing heartbeat, sweating and eyes that are open but unseeing. Night terrors tend to occur after a child has been asleep about 90 minutes.

A child having a nightmare, meanwhile, rarely screams or sweats, does not flail about and can recall what was upsetting. Nightmares also occur much later in the sleep cycle.

Night terrors can be quite scary for the parent, Ms. Garfield says. She offers the following advice for coping with night terrors:

• Do not attempt to forcibly restrain the child unless it is essential for the child's safety. It could make the night terror worse.

• Do not try to rouse the child by slapping, shaking or yelling.

• Touch the child lightly, such as putting your arms around him and stroking the child's face or arms soothingly.

• Speak softly and calmly, even if the child does not appear to hear you. Say things such as, "It's all right. I'm here. You're OK now."

• Let the child return to sleep as soon as possible. The average night terror lasts a few minutes to half an hour.

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