How Concerned Should I Be About What My 6-y.o. Says When He Has Night Terrors?

Updated on August 04, 2013
T.T. asks from Baltimore, MD
8 answers

Even as a toddler, my son (now 6) has always been prone to night terrors when he's overtired. He's been in an all day camp this week, and he is exhausted by the end of the day. In 4 of the last 7 nights, he's woken up crying, screaming, and shaking. As a toddler, his night terrors manifested themselves in non-verbal screams. Now that he is older and articulate, he'll tell us things like, "I feel so bad!" When we ask him what he feels bad about, he'll say things like, "I feel bad about myself!" Or he'll say that he was thinking about "laws" or just tonight he said he just thinks about "bad things" but he can't really explain what they are.

He is barely awake during these terrors, and he has very little recollection the following morning of having them at all. If he remembers anything, it's usually just that we were there and he talked to us, but he doesn't typically really remember what any of us said. I'm wondering if I need to start prodding a little more to find out the source of these "bad things" that are going through his head? I especially didn't like hearing him say that he feels bad about himself, particularly if he feels so bad that he wakes up screaming and crying. When I ask him during the day if there is anything bothering him or does he feel bad about anything, he says no. I guess I wonder if these are real issues that are coming out in his sleep? Do I need to be concerned about them and try to address them, or do I just chalk them up to random nightmares/night terrors? What would you do?

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So What Happened?

Thanks, everyone. This wasn't meant to be a dissection on night terrors vs. nightmares. He sometimes has bad dreams, but nightmares don't usually make him scream and cry. What I'm calling night terrors may not perfectly fit the clinical definition, but they are something between night terrors and nightmares (nightmerrors? - heh). Anyway, I'm glad for the reassurance that most of you don't think what he says while he has them indicate subconscious issues.

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answers from New York on

Night terrors change his bedtime and see if that works. I would not be concerned. Many kids experience them. Just comfort him as best you can.

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answers from Boston on

There's a difference between night terrors and nightmares. Usually night terrors have no conscious thought, and are not based on anything such as experiences that make someone feel bad about themselves. They are rarely, if ever, remembered and usually kids go back to sleep without fully waking up. Your son is conscious enough to talk to you and answer your questions - he's waking up more fully and reporting to you on a nightmare or thoughts he's been having.

If your son's issues are affected by his exhaustion, I'd look at that. I think it wouldn't hurt to tell the pediatrician. Sometimes a sleep study can reveal valuable clues about how much REM sleep someone is actually getting, how long they're at that level, and so on.

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answers from Miami on

It's really unusual to talk during night terrors. Have you asked your ped about this?

I would not talk to him about what he is saying. I would treat this more like he's talking in his sleep. Do discuss this with the doctor and see what he/she says.

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answers from St. Louis on

Those aren't night terrors. Don't remember if it REM or deeper but you are fully asleep, and don't remember, when you have a night terror.

It sounds like being over tired effects the quality of his sleep. He is not actually going into a deep sleep needed to feel refreshed. If it is only every now and then I wouldn't worry about it because a few sleepless nights won't hurt anyone.

So far as his thoughts go I wouldn't worry unless these are things he dwells on during the day. Sure you dream about what you think about when you are conscious but dreams take you on a journey your conscious mind would never go on. That doesn't by proxy mean your conscious mind is unwilling to go there it is just your conscious mind knows it is irrational. Guess you can look at it as your dreams remove your filters.

Just this morning I woke up feeling disturbed. My last dream was that my son Andy would only live to 16 because of his autism. Err, no, my conscious mind knows all about his condition and it knows that he won't die of it! I was dreaming. Sure it took me a few minutes to shake it off when I woke up but it is in no way shape or form indicating I fear my son will die. He starts high school in two weeks, that is on my mind.
Oh, my son had true night terrors when he was younger, trust me they are only terrifying to the spectators. He would eventually fall calm and wake up the next day wondering why I have a black eye.

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answers from Albuquerque on

Those do not sound like night terrors. They sound like the very intense dreams of a very overtired little boy. One of my daughters has intense dreams when she's overtired too; the start of camp really wore her out.

I don't think I'd worry unless he exhibits other signs of low self esteem.



answers from Chicago on

I was reading a developmental book the other day and it said that night terrors are really common at 5 and 6. There are some seriously big changed going on in their brain.

The book also said that one of the big things with this age is wanting to be perfect. They want to follow the rules, and feel good about themselves when they behave well. At the same time, however, they are growing more independent, and can be very defiant. This creates a weird tension. Maybe what your son is saying about feeling bad is related to this.


answers from Norfolk on

Hi, T:

Sounds like you have a lot of challenges in your family.

I would suggest you take some parenting classes. I am sure there are many in your area of the country.

Good luck.


answers from Columbia on

Night terrors happen during REM and at that time you are completely paralyzed. He wouldn't be talking.

I wouldn't worry about it. Comfort and tell him that he's just dreaming and let him go back to sleep. Try to avoid any screen time for 1 hour before bed.

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