As it pertains to children, it is imperative to make the distinction between the two, since a child with frequent nightmares might need psychotherapy; a child with sleep terror, however, usually does not.
Sleep terrors in adults are more serious and often indicate excessive anxiety, agitation and, at times, aggressive impulses. An adult who has frequent sleep terrors should consult with a psychiatrist. In serious situations, mild dosages of Valium are prescribed to lessen the delta sleep.
It may help to increase your child’s sleep hours. The longer one sleeps, the shallower the sleep becomes. Keep in mind that sleep terror is generally a stage that passes. If your son wakes up screaming do not wake him up, for this will break his sleep cycle and cause him more anxiety and bewilderment. If he screams in his sleep, gently pat him on the back and wait by his side until you see that his breathing has slowed and that he has returned to a deep sleep. And if this is happening very frequently or you are frightened that something else may be going on, speak to your son’s pediatrician about possible medical treatments.
Sleep terror is by and large not a sign of emotional problems. Many children have this problem and it is not something to be apprehensive about. However, frequent nightmares may indicate a more serious problem and should be treated. Occasional nightmares are normal; everyone has them.
If after increasing your son’s sleep the night terror does not pass, please seek professional help. Hatzlachah!
Note: The information I’ve provided in this column was taken from DSM-V Sleep Disorders and No More Sleepless Nights by Peter Hauri, Ph.D., and Shirley Linde, Ph.D., pages 204-205.