Could nightmares be tied to start of kindergarten?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  September 2, 2010 06:00 AM

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(This letter has been condensed)

My daughter will be 5 in November. She recently had a bad dream that scared her a lot. She's had bad dreams before, but has shaken them off and slept fine after. The first day after this dream, she started sobbing when she realized it was dinner time and almost bed time. She was too upset to eat dinner. She also has started not wanting to be alone ever. She won't play in the basement playroom by herself. She won't stay in her room, even with the door open. She won't sit on the couch in the living room and watch TV if I have to go upstairs... All of these things she did all the time before this dream.

...The first few days she slept most of the night (she usually wakes to pee). But the past 10 days or so she has been waking up more frequently. She will try to come into our bed (which we allowed a couple of times but are now trying to discourage). I've stopped laying with her in bed when she first tries to fall asleep, but I have to at least be sitting outside the door where she can see me. When she wakes in the middle of the night, I usually end up sleeping with her just so I can go back to sleep.

She doesn't have nightmares often, and honestly I don't think she can even remember what this one was about. Her 2.5-year-old brother is in the room next to her. I've thought about maybe letting her sleep with him? She has said she just wants to sleep with a real person. But at the same time I don't want to disrupt his sleep since he is sleeping very well!

I've tried getting her to lay in her bed with the door open and the hallway light on (yes, she has a nightlight and flashlight). She will not stay in the room. Walking her back over and over again seems to be useless as well. I've tried offering rewards for small milestones and also taking away TV privileges.

Any tips on how to get her to sleep well again? Even the past days when I have resorted to sleeping with her, she has seemed restless - waking up often to check that I am still there.

From: Kristen, Burlington, VT

Dear Kristen,

You're probably right, that she doesn't remember the original dream. But then again, what she may remember is the feeling of how frightened she was.

But here's my first thought: Is she starting kindergarten? As kindergarten approaches, children can feel like they have no control in their lives, and the fear from the nightmare and the fear of school can be all mushed up together. I wouldn't necessarily make the connection for her, but I would find a great book to read about kindergarten that will allow her to verbalize her concerns. "Kindergarten Rocks" is my favorite!

Meanwhile, at 5, she's old enough to have conversations about this during the day . Don't worry that by talking about it you will make it worse; the opposite is true: talking it through -- "What do you think is making you afraid to go to sleep? Are you afraid that you will have another bad dream, one as scary as that other time?" -- can be a coping mechanism. Ask her what ideas she has for getting to sleep, or getting back to sleep. You may be surprised at her ideas.

Oh, and then there's Baka Baku, a delightful plush toy that's half lion and half elephant. He sucks up bad dreams. Don't laugh. He's been a favorite in my extended family for years and got many of our kids through the nightmare stage.

Fears like this are really real to young children, and occasional nightmares are typical to this age. (More than occasional can be a signal that what she's watching on the screen is inappropriate for her, even if it is hand-picked videos.) This is a stage that will pass. It has to do with her changing cognitive skills: She's more aware of the world at large, that it's a big place, and she's a little piece in it.

Lastly, you may be giving up too soon on a strategy. Pick a strategy (like sitting by her bedroom door) and stay with it, not just for a few nights, but for weeks, if that's what it takes. Whatever you do, don't belittle or shame her (doesn't sound like you are). If she doesn't want to stay downstairs by herself, just say, "oh, OK, c'mon up." Don't show your frustration, be matter of fact and non-judgmental. By showing empathy and taking it seriously, you're building trust in your relationship.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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1 comments so far...
  1. Wow. I missed this. This was my post. No, she is not starting kindergarten. She won't go to kindergarten until next year (2011). But she moved up to the pre-K class in her daycare, along with other friends she knows, and she has a brand new teacher. The old pre-K teacher left. And this new teacher is a male. She has always have female teachers before. But she claims to like him. But that is a new change for her in any case.

    I've read some sections from Ferber's book and decided to stay in her room with her for a few days to see if she gets over her fear. The first 2 nights i stayed outside her room while she fell asleep. The next 2 days she allowed me to do "chores" in my bedroom down the hall while she fell asleep. So that part is great. I'll go sleep with her when i am ready for bed. She's stopped waking up so often and only wakes 1x to pee. Usually around 1:30 and then goes back to sleep right away. I am thinking of sneaking out of her room after this pee break. Or telling her that I will be moving to sleep on the floor instead of in her bed. Gradual steps, right?? :)

    Posted by Kristen September 15, 10 12:52 PM
 
1 comments so far...
  1. Wow. I missed this. This was my post. No, she is not starting kindergarten. She won't go to kindergarten until next year (2011). But she moved up to the pre-K class in her daycare, along with other friends she knows, and she has a brand new teacher. The old pre-K teacher left. And this new teacher is a male. She has always have female teachers before. But she claims to like him. But that is a new change for her in any case.

    I've read some sections from Ferber's book and decided to stay in her room with her for a few days to see if she gets over her fear. The first 2 nights i stayed outside her room while she fell asleep. The next 2 days she allowed me to do "chores" in my bedroom down the hall while she fell asleep. So that part is great. I'll go sleep with her when i am ready for bed. She's stopped waking up so often and only wakes 1x to pee. Usually around 1:30 and then goes back to sleep right away. I am thinking of sneaking out of her room after this pee break. Or telling her that I will be moving to sleep on the floor instead of in her bed. Gradual steps, right?? :)

    Posted by Kristen September 15, 10 12:52 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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