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'90s FAMILY : Nothing to Fear : Finding out that nightmares are part of the growing process won't put a child back to sleep. But pillow talk can.

October 25, 1995|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The dinosaurs and clowns showed up again last night.

They climbed in through the window (apparently, Barney wasn't with them). As usual, they scared the bejesus out of my 2-year-old. These scanty details I glean from his tearful description.

This collective sleep-shattering event, complete with murderous sounding screams that jettison me from bed like a pilot from a flaming jet, is perfectly normal. In fact, his bad dreams ought to cheer me up.

Nightmares are a developmental milestone.

They mark the beginning of symbolic (but not logical) thought composed of highly imaginative, complex images culled from the child's impression of the world, says Dr. Stanley I. Greenspan, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School. Bad dreams that awaken the child with raw fear start at about age 2. Some research suggests children as young as 8 months have them. A few pediatric sleep specialists even speculate that night crying in infants may be caused by nightmares.

Nightmares, which occur in the lighter, rapid eye movement cycle of sleep, can be triggered by psychological, physiological and environmental influences. Insecurity, fear and guilt--emotions children experience as readily as adults--can be at the root of the dream gone bad. Sensitive children--those easily frightened by loud noises and sensitive to touch--are more prone to nightmares than other children, Greenspan says. Overall, children have more nightmares than adults, with a diminishing curve as they mature.

"Children's defenses aren't built up," says Dr. Ernest Hartmann, a professor of psychiatry at Tuft University Medical School and author of "The Nightmare" (Basic Books, 1984). "They are vulnerable, open and permeable. And they don't quite know the difference between reality and fantasy until around 4 or 5."

But even with the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy, children as old as 7 and 8 retain fears of monsters. Their world views, especially in the early years, offer bountiful fodder for chase dreams (foot-long legs are won't get you very far when you chance upon a wolf), dreams about being hit or bitten by pals, and attack dreams in which a witch or monster springs upon them from the closet.

Unsophisticated coping skills and inadequate verbal abilities leave young children with few ways to exorcise their fears of the unknown, making the subconscious world of dreaming the primary venue for a child's emotional drama to play out. Older children are more able to work out their problems in a story or in play.

"Sometimes it is as simple as something that surprises and scares them," says Rosalind Cartwright, a psychologist and director of the sleep disorder service and research center at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago.

One 3-year-old drew Cartwright a picture of the thing terrifying her. It showed a huge monster flying overhead with a massive mouth. The child drew herself as a tiny, helpless stick figure below.

"I asked her who the monster was and she said 'Mama,' " Cartwright recalls. "I said, 'Did your mama yell at you?' and she said, 'Yes.' If you're a child who has never known your mother to be anything but loving and nurturing and, suddenly, she yells at you, then the child has nothing to relate it to. So they process it through dreaming. As the child matures cognitively, nightmares decrease."

Nightmares may also be spurred by physiological causes, such as lack of sleep, ear infections, fevers and changes in diet. External influences--scary stories, movies, too much noise at bedtime or too much television--can also spawn nightmares. With Halloween around the corner, parents with children plagued by nightmares should monitor the onslaught of ghoul stimuli. Refrain from haunted houses, monster decor, horror movies and pass on the Frankenstein mask this year.

For children, especially those who are going through developmental changes (learning to talk or to use the toilet) and adjusting to new situations (going to preschool or experiencing a mother returning to work), fears and anxieties are expansive and ever-changing. A child's fly phobia at 2 will be traded for a sudden fear of spiders at 3.

Greenspan says children can't soothe themselves back to sleep until they are cognitively developed enough to understand cause and effect, at which point they can say, "This is silly, it's just a dream." The ability to do that is gradual, occurring between 4 and 5 years of age.

Anne Sayre Wiseman, a psychotherapist and author of a guidebook for parents and teachers titled "Nightmare Help" (Ten Speed Press, 1989), believes children can learn to negotiate their nightmares. She suggests children draw the nightmare scenario and a solution, and use imaginary drama to make peace with the villains.

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