Keisha Culp knows the fear all too well. While watching television one night last December, she was startled by her 3-year-old daughter's screams and cries. Moving frantically through the halls, the mother finally reached her daughter Briana's room and found her tossing and turning in bed, yelling the name of her 3-year-old cousin.
It was a nightmare.
"I shook her and finally woke her up," says Culp, who lives in Royse City, Texas. "She was trying to tell me what he was doing [in the dream], but I didn't understand what she was saying. I think he was chasing her."
According to Bruce A. Epstein, a pediatrician in St. Petersburg, Fla., 70 percent of children suffer from nightmares, and they are most common between the ages of 3 and 6.
But what exactly are nightmares, and how should parents handle them? Simply defined, a nightmare is a scary dream that frightens and usually wakes us. Nightmares occur during the rapid eye movement (R.E.M.) cycle of sleep, the point in which we dream. Like dreams, nightmares tend to correspond to personal distress. They may manifest as a real representation of a troubling issue, or as a symbol. Generally, nightmares are a combination of both, helping a child to work out issues that carry over from the waking hours.
While most children's nightmares are nothing to lose sleep over, after age 5 or 6, recurring nightmares could signal a problem.
"Regardless of his age, if your child's nightmares continue to be frequent and persist for more than one or two months, and if you can't identify and help him resolve the stress he is feeling, then you should seek professional help," says Dr. Richard Ferber, author of "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems." "This is especially true if your child also has unreasonable fears during the day."
"Unreasonable fears" might include an unwillingness to separate from you, refusal to be in his bedroom alone, reluctance to go to school and other phobias.
Experts also advise parents to determine whether their child is suffering from nightmares or night terrors, a hereditary sleep disorder.
For children suffering from the more garden-variety sort of bad dreams, getting nightmares to go away is relatively simple -- but involves some time.
Some psychologists say comforting should be the first step. In his book "Dreamcatching: Every Parent's Guide to Exploring and Understanding Children's Dreams and Nightmares" (Three Rivers Press, 1998, $14.95), Dr. Alan Siegel explains his remedy for recurring nightmares. It consists of what he calls the four R's: reassurance, rescripting, rehearsal and resolution.
Reassurance is the most important of the four. It calls for comforting your child after he wakes up from a nightmare. You'll want to hold the child until he is able to give you, if he's old enough, the details of his scary encounter.
"Poetically, that breaks the spell of the nightmare," says Siegel, assistant clinical professor at the University of California at Berkeley's school of professional psychology. "From there, you use more playful, artistic, creative approaches to kind of play with the dream."
Enter the rescripting phase. This involves creating a new ending for the nightmare. It can also involve writing a happy ending or drawing one.
"For younger kids up through elementary-school age, drawing the dream is very helpful because dreams are an incredible source of creativity," says Siegel, who is also president of the Association for the Study of Dreams. "When you draw the dream, ... you see it from a different perspective."
Another suggested part of rescripting is the use of magical tools, says Siegel. For younger kids, helping them create an arsenal of magical weapons -- from a magic wand to a superhero -- gives them a feeling of power.
Siegel warns against simply inventing a new ending to the dream without discovering the underlying problem that caused the dream. This is where the last two R's, rehearsal and resolution, come in.
Rehearsal involves putting rescripting to the test. Your child needs to review his new, happy ending and practice using his magical tools until he feels completely competent.
In the last stage, resolution, parents work with their child to discover the source of the nightmare. By combining the three previous R's and deciphering the dream through exploration and brainstorming, parents and children can feel confident in overcoming emotional challenges.
Siegel says the most important thing is never to dismiss your child's nightmare fears. "You don't want to say, 'It's just a dream,' because that dismisses a fundamental, very powerful experience a child has had," he says.
Helpful books for solving sleep problems
"Understanding Your Child's Dreams" by Pam Spurr, Ph.D. (Sterling Publications, $14.95). Colorful book that provides descriptions of real children's dreams. Glossary provides possible meanings of common dream themes. Aimed at parents of children ages 3-12.
"Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems" by Richard Ferber, M.D. (Simon & Schuster, $13). Comprehensive book that covers a wide range of sleep problems. In addition to nightmares and night terrors, bedwetting, insomnia, body rocking and refusing to go to bed are covered. Aimed at parents of children ages 3-12.
"Baby & Toddler Sleep Program" by John Pearce, M.D. (Fisher Books, $9.95). Easy-to-read book provides guidelines that establish a sleep routine for toddlers. Discusses normal sleep patterns for babies and children and gives effective tips for reducing nighttime stress. Aimed at parents of children 6 weeks to 5 years old.
"Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child" by Marc Weissbluth, M.D. (Fawcett Books, $12.95). Father and pediatrician shares his step-by-step program to solving and preventing sleep problems. Points out several mistakes parents make when dealing with nightmares and other sleep problems. Aimed at parents of children 6 weeks to 5 years old.