Nightmare World

It’s three am. My son hollers from across the house, “Rest with meeeeee!”

He’s had another nightmare.

Tyoma’s sleeping mind conjures strange and spectacular horrors. In his dreams, bathtub drains have teeth and eat little boy fingers.  Lurid moons peep through his curtains with “frowns and smiles so tight it hurts to look at them.” Limbs detach themselves and ambulate to our basement for exercise.

Tonight, the kitchen trash became sentient.  Tyoma’s dream-self heard its irritable rustling a half a house away.  I rest with him and doze off until Papa wakes me at 7:00.

Most nights are like this.

Prior to last spring, Tyoma slept well, waking only when routines went awry. That May, his brain began cranking out bizarre dreams regularly.

Part of me wanted to high-five him–weird dreams are a rite of passage in our family. The other part offered its tenderest sympathies.

Nightmare FactoryMy childhood nightmare factory produced horrors similar to Tyoma’s.  In fact, my dreams resemble his so closely I suspect a genetic component.

My most frightening dream involved murderous dishtowels with superhuman strength. A pack of them stalked me in our living room, intent on smothering me.  When a ratty plaid terry towel flipped over the couch and found me cowering, I woke up screaming.

No alien or zombie filled movie will ever equal the terror of the evil dishtowels. Perhaps Tyoma and I fear the mundane turned sinister because we crave predictability. The unexpected petrifies.

As we weather Tyoma’s nightmare surge, I’d like to share how our family manages to sleep well despite frequent wakings.

Accept sleep disruption.  Nightmares peak for all children five to eight years old. Children like Tyoma who have autism and/or Tourette’s syndrome are more anxious and creative, causing intense dreams.   Dreams are to my six year old what diapers are to a baby, a natural part of his development.

Adjust the sleep environment. Most autistic children do not have the skills to unwind alone after a frightening dream, requiring someone to stay with them until they fall asleep.  Any way you can secure sleep is excellent, even if it seems peculiar.

A happy accident worked wonderfully for us: T kept rolling off his twin bed so we gave him the queen guest bed.  He now boasts two beds for nightmare recovery. A parent keeps him company as needed, either on the spare twin or next to him, according to need.  I don’t worry about where I sleep, so long as I do sleep and so does everyone else.  Each parent has a thousand waking, calm moments to teach a child independence. Let sleep be their respite.

Redirect fear. We do not discuss nightmares in the bedroom.  I give Tyoma a courtesy sentence to relate his nightmare, but I don’t let him elaborate. I distract with a snack, brisk walk, or story if he can’t stop talking. Children with OCD or autism easily get worrisome thoughts stuck, so I act quickly to prevent T from reliving his fear and losing an entire night’s sleep.

Use tools.  Some parents make “nightmare spray” or “monster traps” for their children. Others train their child to change the ending of their dreams. While Tyoma invents multiple nightmare fighting tools, he eventually asks, “What if it doesn’t work?” This frightening realization can swallow a child whole.  I advocate honesty and composure. We tell Tyoma, “You will wake up and someone will be with you.”  Sometimes we need to say this a few times, but it ends the conversation. Knowing he is safe and loved is the most powerful tool of all.

From my son
My Mother’s Day card.

 
Tyoma’s sleeping mind is as extraordinary as his waking one. One day, I will look back at the night he dreamed his eyes got stuck in one socket. I will recall our trips to the mirror, deep breathing, and reading fairytales until he fell asleep. I will cherish the moments we shared together when I was an all-powerful mother and conqueror of nightmares.
 
 


Roach Nightmare Protecting my son from sinister forces.
Autism and Empathy: The Yogurt Incident Kickstarter for my son’s nightmares.
The Monkey Shower Dream Processing confusion before our Tourette’s syndrome diagnosis.
The Circle of Life A strange dream for a preschooler.
The Red Frog An early nightmare.
Finger Dream Vanity vs. responsibility.

Comments

  1. Life&Ink says:

    Lori, Once again I am inspired by you, by your grasp on a difficult situation. I admire the way you have logically broken down the issue and apply a calm, rational response and by doing so you do not feed the problem. Moreover, you can see and value the lessons your son is learning. The lessons of unconditional love, of being able to count on another person and how to problem solve My gosh Lori, those are priceless and precious gifts. May Tyoma eventually grow out of these night terrors but keep with him always the gift of love you have given him. Bravo!

    • A Quiet Week says:

      Charlotte, thank you very much. The online autism community has granted me courage to pursue what I feel is right as opposed to what is typicall accepted. Part of this is relying on my strengths–logic and previous experience. Further, I am so lucky to have a very loving family. This is the well that gives me strength. I learned love and acceptance from them. Thank you for your wonderful affirmation. I take to heart your words and support, you nourish me!

  2. Thank you for sharing this! What you share is very helpful and I am going to try some of the things you share here that I have not tried. I was beginning to get very concerned because the vivid (nightmare-ish) dreams have been going on for quite some time here.

    It runs on both sides of my family, nightmares, night terrors, and intense vivid dreams.

    I suffered from horrible night terrors as a child onto adulthood depending on the amount of stress/anxiety I was under in my life. I have not had any night terrors for a few years now. Thankfully, my children have not suffered the intense terrifying dreams that I had on a nightly basis. Ariel and Daniel are the only ones who seem to have consistent nightmares. Daniel has not been able to to articulate what his dreams have been.

    The only way that I have known is when he is afraid to sleep and says things like, “Am I going to dream tonight? I do not want to sleep if I am going to dream.” I have been able to get some information out of him, but I mostly redirect focusing on positive things and try to help him think of things that make him happy before he falls asleep. He seems to do much better when I am with him when as he falls asleep.

    Ariel has had some terrifying dreams. She will come to my bed and cuddle up with me when she wakes up. I just cradle her until she is able to go back to sleep. She does not talk about them until she is ready, but she does feel the need to talk about them to help her process. Lately, both of them have been having a hard time and I too have had a few dreams that woke me up gasping for air from fear.

    I am with you, one day I will look back and cherish all of these moments that I got to spend with them. I am very happy that I am able to be there for them. When I was growing up my mom was not sympathetic to my horrible nights. I was not allowed to wake her or go into her room. There were many nights that I sat outside her door, whimpering silently, terrified of the monsters and creatures that were all over my walls and ceilings. At one point, I had to start forcing myself to “get over” them. I learned to cope by myself. It was scary and I felt abandoned. My mom just did not understand so I do not hold any ill feelings, but it does make me hyper sensitive to being there for my kids.

    Geez! I wrote a lot! Ok, I am stopping. 🙂

    You go you “All-powerful mother and conqueror of nightmares!” Great image, love it!

  3. Danielle says:

    I just love that first pick you made of T. I understand it is a representation of all that scared him in his dreams, but without attaching that…I think it’s beautiful! I enjoy your art as much as I enjoy the blog content :). T is lucky to have you, you understand parts of him that no one else can understand (a) because you are his mother and (b) because you have such similar minds ❤ When I scrolled down to the Mother's day card T made you… I cried, real legit tears!! I think it is one of the sweetest things I have seen in a long time… esp. because T does not "say what you want to hear" like most children might when making a card. T speaks the truth…always, so to see that card and what he wrote… I know that he means it with every fiber of his being. Some may not see it, but to me… that card just radiates LOVE 🙂 ❤

    • A Quiet Week says:

      Thank you so much Danielle! I appreciate your kind words and encouragement. Because you know our family so well, your words are extra sweet and special. I am touched that you liked T’s card. When I first saw it, I felt so proud. What a wonderful validation of motherhood. Thank you for being there for us and guiding our family. We treasure you!

      Love!
      Lori

  4. Us, too. When you say anyway you can secure sleep is excellent? Yes, yes, yes. We co-sleep with my son. When I related our sleep problems to my Japanese friend (also a mother), she said, does he sleep fine with you? I answered yes. She replied, then what’s the problem. The end. No problem.

    • A Quiet Week says:

      Awesome to hear! I am glad to hear that co-sleeping works for you. I see many ASD parents have found this solution. I agree with your friend–if sleep–no problem! 🙂

  5. Yvette says:

    On the positive side, your son has an amazing imagination. Maybe he could dictate to “write” down his dreams as stories. Maybe you could figure out a way to make it fun instead of scary and that could make his fear go away. With ASD you constantly have to work with what you get. Good luck!

    • A Quiet Week says:

      Thank you so much for the boost of positive energy. We will definitely try this out. I like how empowering your idea is. I write my most disturbing dreams down in detail to analyze them or just enjoy the strangeness of them. I appreciate you visiting and giving us such a great suggestion!

  6. suburp says:

    My son went through a phase of impressive night scares at the age of 4, but his present troubles w sleep are mostly the part where you have to fall asleep..
    This said he will wake up in discomfort and say he has nightmares about twice a week in the middle of the night, but does not remember them.
    I usually just let him sleep in our bed, for a while or until the morning.
    If I react to much to it it makes him more awake and he’ll need longer to resettle.
    Physical contact reassures him instantly and although he is now 8, I think it’s OK.
    Those dreams would be disturbing! Although I must say that’s fascinating imagery…

    • A Quiet Week says:

      Yes! We try not to react to bad dreams here because it does make nighttime worse. T drops off to sleep regularly, but we have frequent wakings. Although the nightmares seemed to have peaked last spring, he’s still up a few times about five days a week. I recall reading an article dealing with the relationship between giftedness/creativity/dreaming and wanted to write about it. I can’t seem to find it in my bookmarks to post here. Really, though. Who knows? It certainly seems that his brain is on overdrive!

      Anyway, since this has been written, I’ve pretty much moved into a mattress on the floor of his room. He wakes up several times a night and obsessive thinking prevents him from settling down by himself. We’ve tried every other solution short of blasting his brain with meds, so we’ll stick with it. My husband, oddly enough was not able to sleep on his own and shared a room with his aunt until his teens. It was no big deal because he is Russian and the family structure is different.

      I’m glad to hear how you plan your nights. I don’t see this as an issue that will be with us forever, especially since I can reference my own experiences with weird dreams. By the time I was 10 I slept less fitfully. I hate the idea that giving kids nighttime comfort is seen as spoiling them. We work very hard as parents and we think everything through thoroughly. It’s good to know we are not alone!

    • A Quiet Week says:

      Yes! We try not to react to bad dreams here because it does make nighttime worse. T drops off to sleep regularly, but we have frequent wakings. Although the nightmares seemed to have peaked last spring, he’s still up a few times about five days a week. I recall reading an article dealing with the relationship between giftedness/creativity/dreaming and wanted to write about it. I can’t seem to find it in my bookmarks to post here. Really, though. Who knows? It certainly seems that his brain is on overdrive!

      Anyway, since this has been written, I’ve pretty much moved into a mattress on the floor of his room. He wakes up several times a night and obsessive thinking prevents him from settling down by himself. We’ve tried every other solution short of blasting his brain with meds, so we’ll stick with it. My husband, oddly enough was not able to sleep on his own and shared a room with his aunt until his teens. It was no big deal because he is Russian and the family structure is different.

      I’m glad to hear how you plan your nights. I don’t see this as an issue that will be with us forever, especially since I can reference my own experiences with weird dreams. By the time I was 10 I slept less fitfully. I hate the idea that giving kids nighttime comfort is seen as spoiling them. We work very hard as parents and we think everything through thoroughly. It’s good to know we are not alone!

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