Can mom's yelling cause night terrors?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  June 8, 2012 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

I am a regular reader of your column and think you give fantastic advice. I am concerned about my 4 1/2 year old's nightmares. She'll go a few weeks without having any but then have 3-4 in a week, sometimes back-to-back nights. She'll be hysterical but still sleeping and it can be hard to settle her down.

Could these be caused by anxiety? I feel as though her nightmares are my fault as I can lose my patience easily. I do not stay upset and while I am able to play, laugh, and tell my girls how much I love them, I am also embarrassed to write that I think I yell more than the average parent. I've been working on this and getting better but I am not always successful in the heat of the moment.

Could these nightmares be because she is scared of me? If so, is it possible to un-do the damage that has already been done?

From: Concerned, Central MA

Dear Concerned,

Your letter prompted me to call Dennis Rosen, associate medical director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children's Hospital. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

Meltz: I'm inclined to think these are night terrors, not nightmares...

Rosen: A really good way to distinguish between the two is when they happen in the night. Night terrors happen in the first third of the night, nightmares in the last half.

Meltz: With night terrors, a child is usually crying but not seeming to be awake....?

Rosen: Yes, there's inconsolable crying that is disconnected from what’s going on around her and she remembers nothing about it the next day. It's very typical for this age. With nightmares, a child will awaken from the dream and talk about it and often remember details the next day.

Meltz: Causes of night terrors?

Rosen: Night terrors can be triggered by many things: Not getting enough sleep; falling asleep in one location and being transferred to another; an irregular sleep schedule; certain medications; obstructed sleep apnea.

Meltz: Anxiety?

Rosen: Yes, it is possible anxiety could provoke night terrors. So if there is unresolved conflict – if there was a bad scene before bedtime, yes, it could be a trigger. But more likely, that would play out in bad dream, not night terrors and these details from this mom sound more like night terrors.

Meltz: What about her question that she's the cause?

Rosen: I see that as more of this mother's lack of confidence in her parenting [skills]. I really hate for her to beat herself up over this. It just seems wrong. I don’t want to give any impression this is her fault. But if that is her concern, what she can do is spend time with the child before she settles her into bed to make sure she diffuses any tension that has built up, including tension between them.

Meltz: This mom is talking about yelling. Serious yelling. There are other strategies besides yelling…..

Rosen: Yes. She's wondering if the child could be fearful of her because of yelling.
I don’t think so. [Again, I think] that speaks more to the mother’s lack of confidence. This could be happening independently of anything the mother is doing. I hate for this woman to think she’s the cause. That’s just wrong.

Meltz: On the other hand, I don't want to ignore that this mom could be saying that she has problems managing her anger, and that could affect her relationship with her daughter.

Rosen: When yelling is a pattern, it's never a good thing.

[Note: The links are my choices, not Dr. Rosen's]

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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5 comments so far...
  1. I had night terrors too as a child. Never remembered a thing the next day. It was pretty quiet at home at that point, since I was the first. I think it probably has little to do with your daughter's nighttime issues.

    But I do agree yelling is a HUGE problem. If you can't control yourself, go into another room (even the closet) and cry and scream by yourself. Count to fifty before coming back out to your kids. I was always so stressed when my mom yelled at my dad--more common than her yelling at us. I left home early because of it. Wouldn't you hate to drive your kids away too someday?

    I think you should consider getting professional counseling and perhaps even some meds to help you manage your stress. I've found that anxiety runs in families and it's best to get your own issues under control so that you're able to help your kids deal with theirs. Good luck.

    Posted by momof2 June 8, 12 10:29 AM
  1. Won't comment on whether her yelling is a factor in the child's night terrors, but frequent yelling and open displays of anger are unfortunate. I'm far from a perfect parent, but we make an effort to not disagree or yell in front of our kids for many reasons, including: 1) you're teaching your child that yelling/anger are acceptable ways to deal with issues 2) It creates a negative environment for all involved.

    Posted by eugene June 8, 12 11:45 AM
  1. I've had night terrors my whole life. My father also has them, as does my aunt (father's sister). While they don't happen every night, I do usually have one at least once a week. I don't remember them and they typically happen within 2 hours of me falling asleep. Apparently, I'm just very afraid and often yelling during them. Doctors my family and I have talked to seem to think there could be a genetic predisposition or component and that they are brought on with stress or being over tired or just simply some little "glitch" in my brain as I fall asleep. While it is an issue in terms of frightening those who witness them, I don't think there's any other environmental cause in terms of being yelled at or being around angry people, as I've had them growing up, when I lived alone and with later with friends, and in my adult life living with my spouse. I agree with the doctor and Barbara- the yelling is an issue, but likely not at the root of the night terror problem.

    Posted by teacherinmass June 9, 12 02:05 PM
  1. A very strange 'interview'. The sleep expert repeatedly asserts that it is concerning that the mom wants to blame herself; meanwhile, Meltz seems bent on insisting that the mom IS at fault. She ignores all of the important points made by Rosen in favor of harping on the mom's self-reported anger.

    Of course it's important for the mom to work on her self control (which she says she is doing). But why not give her the positive feedback she needs to continually increase the positive aspects of her relationship with her child?
    I just found it strange that an expert was contacted and then so blithely dismissed.

    Posted by CC June 10, 12 09:19 AM
  1. I doubt it has anything to do with yelling. My guess is that she is not getting enough sleep -- being overtired is the #1 reason for night terrors. Are you one of those families that keeps your child up in the evening to spend time with her because "it works for us"? Maybe when she dropped her nap you didn't move didn't move her bedtime early enough to compensate for the lost sleep? Most kids this age in the US (estimated 50%) don't get enough sleep but parents don't realize it because the symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation are things like night waking, night terrors, defiant behavior and hyperactivity, so not the same as yawning or rubbing your eyes when you are a little past your bedtime. One way to know if she is overtired is if she sometimes falls asleep in the car or if she is not waking up at a consistent time (a four year old should NEVER sleep in, that's a sign of messed-up sleep). A 4 y.o. should be consistently getting about 12 hrs of sleep in a 24 hour period, so if she's up at 7am she should be in bed by 7pm and never after 7:30pm. This might be hard at first if she is not used to a healthy sleep schedule, but you can do it by moving her bedtime earlier in small 10 minute increments. Putting her to bed early will not make her wake up earlier, it will make her sleep better and longer. If she has a late bedtime one night, put her to bed 1/2 hour earlier the next (my 4 y.o is sometimes in bed at 6:30pm!). I can almost guarantee you that when she gets more sleep on a consistent schedule, the night terrors will disappear.

    FWIW, it sounds like you might need a little more sleep too so that you can be more zen with your preschooler ;)

    Posted by momto3 June 11, 12 10:23 AM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. I had night terrors too as a child. Never remembered a thing the next day. It was pretty quiet at home at that point, since I was the first. I think it probably has little to do with your daughter's nighttime issues.

    But I do agree yelling is a HUGE problem. If you can't control yourself, go into another room (even the closet) and cry and scream by yourself. Count to fifty before coming back out to your kids. I was always so stressed when my mom yelled at my dad--more common than her yelling at us. I left home early because of it. Wouldn't you hate to drive your kids away too someday?

    I think you should consider getting professional counseling and perhaps even some meds to help you manage your stress. I've found that anxiety runs in families and it's best to get your own issues under control so that you're able to help your kids deal with theirs. Good luck.

    Posted by momof2 June 8, 12 10:29 AM
  1. Won't comment on whether her yelling is a factor in the child's night terrors, but frequent yelling and open displays of anger are unfortunate. I'm far from a perfect parent, but we make an effort to not disagree or yell in front of our kids for many reasons, including: 1) you're teaching your child that yelling/anger are acceptable ways to deal with issues 2) It creates a negative environment for all involved.

    Posted by eugene June 8, 12 11:45 AM
  1. I've had night terrors my whole life. My father also has them, as does my aunt (father's sister). While they don't happen every night, I do usually have one at least once a week. I don't remember them and they typically happen within 2 hours of me falling asleep. Apparently, I'm just very afraid and often yelling during them. Doctors my family and I have talked to seem to think there could be a genetic predisposition or component and that they are brought on with stress or being over tired or just simply some little "glitch" in my brain as I fall asleep. While it is an issue in terms of frightening those who witness them, I don't think there's any other environmental cause in terms of being yelled at or being around angry people, as I've had them growing up, when I lived alone and with later with friends, and in my adult life living with my spouse. I agree with the doctor and Barbara- the yelling is an issue, but likely not at the root of the night terror problem.

    Posted by teacherinmass June 9, 12 02:05 PM
  1. A very strange 'interview'. The sleep expert repeatedly asserts that it is concerning that the mom wants to blame herself; meanwhile, Meltz seems bent on insisting that the mom IS at fault. She ignores all of the important points made by Rosen in favor of harping on the mom's self-reported anger.

    Of course it's important for the mom to work on her self control (which she says she is doing). But why not give her the positive feedback she needs to continually increase the positive aspects of her relationship with her child?
    I just found it strange that an expert was contacted and then so blithely dismissed.

    Posted by CC June 10, 12 09:19 AM
  1. I doubt it has anything to do with yelling. My guess is that she is not getting enough sleep -- being overtired is the #1 reason for night terrors. Are you one of those families that keeps your child up in the evening to spend time with her because "it works for us"? Maybe when she dropped her nap you didn't move didn't move her bedtime early enough to compensate for the lost sleep? Most kids this age in the US (estimated 50%) don't get enough sleep but parents don't realize it because the symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation are things like night waking, night terrors, defiant behavior and hyperactivity, so not the same as yawning or rubbing your eyes when you are a little past your bedtime. One way to know if she is overtired is if she sometimes falls asleep in the car or if she is not waking up at a consistent time (a four year old should NEVER sleep in, that's a sign of messed-up sleep). A 4 y.o. should be consistently getting about 12 hrs of sleep in a 24 hour period, so if she's up at 7am she should be in bed by 7pm and never after 7:30pm. This might be hard at first if she is not used to a healthy sleep schedule, but you can do it by moving her bedtime earlier in small 10 minute increments. Putting her to bed early will not make her wake up earlier, it will make her sleep better and longer. If she has a late bedtime one night, put her to bed 1/2 hour earlier the next (my 4 y.o is sometimes in bed at 6:30pm!). I can almost guarantee you that when she gets more sleep on a consistent schedule, the night terrors will disappear.

    FWIW, it sounds like you might need a little more sleep too so that you can be more zen with your preschooler ;)

    Posted by momto3 June 11, 12 10:23 AM
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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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