'90s FAMILY : Nothing to Fear : Finding out that nightmares are part of the growing process won't put a child back to sleep. But pillow talk can.

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The dinosaurs and clowns showed up again last night.

They climbed in through the window (apparently, Barney wasn't with them). As usual, they scared the bejesus out of my 2-year-old. These scanty details I glean from his tearful description.

This collective sleep-shattering event, complete with murderous sounding screams that jettison me from bed like a pilot from a flaming jet, is perfectly normal. In fact, his bad dreams ought to cheer me up.

Nightmares are a developmental milestone.

They mark the beginning of symbolic (but not logical) thought composed of highly imaginative, complex images culled from the child's impression of the world, says Dr. Stanley I. Greenspan, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School. Bad dreams that awaken the child with raw fear start at about age 2. Some research suggests children as young as 8 months have them. A few pediatric sleep specialists even speculate that night crying in infants may be caused by nightmares.

Nightmares, which occur in the lighter, rapid eye movement cycle of sleep, can be triggered by psychological, physiological and environmental influences. Insecurity, fear and guilt--emotions children experience as readily as adults--can be at the root of the dream gone bad. Sensitive children--those easily frightened by loud noises and sensitive to touch--are more prone to nightmares than other children, Greenspan says. Overall, children have more nightmares than adults, with a diminishing curve as they mature.

"Children's defenses aren't built up," says Dr. Ernest Hartmann, a professor of psychiatry at Tuft University Medical School and author of "The Nightmare" (Basic Books, 1984). "They are vulnerable, open and permeable. And they don't quite know the difference between reality and fantasy until around 4 or 5."

But even with the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy, children as old as 7 and 8 retain fears of monsters. Their world views, especially in the early years, offer bountiful fodder for chase dreams (foot-long legs are won't get you very far when you chance upon a wolf), dreams about being hit or bitten by pals, and attack dreams in which a witch or monster springs upon them from the closet.

Unsophisticated coping skills and inadequate verbal abilities leave young children with few ways to exorcise their fears of the unknown, making the subconscious world of dreaming the primary venue for a child's emotional drama to play out. Older children are more able to work out their problems in a story or in play.

"Sometimes it is as simple as something that surprises and scares them," says Rosalind Cartwright, a psychologist and director of the sleep disorder service and research center at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago.

One 3-year-old drew Cartwright a picture of the thing terrifying her. It showed a huge monster flying overhead with a massive mouth. The child drew herself as a tiny, helpless stick figure below.

"I asked her who the monster was and she said 'Mama,' " Cartwright recalls. "I said, 'Did your mama yell at you?' and she said, 'Yes.' If you're a child who has never known your mother to be anything but loving and nurturing and, suddenly, she yells at you, then the child has nothing to relate it to. So they process it through dreaming. As the child matures cognitively, nightmares decrease."

Nightmares may also be spurred by physiological causes, such as lack of sleep, ear infections, fevers and changes in diet. External influences--scary stories, movies, too much noise at bedtime or too much television--can also spawn nightmares. With Halloween around the corner, parents with children plagued by nightmares should monitor the onslaught of ghoul stimuli. Refrain from haunted houses, monster decor, horror movies and pass on the Frankenstein mask this year.

For children, especially those who are going through developmental changes (learning to talk or to use the toilet) and adjusting to new situations (going to preschool or experiencing a mother returning to work), fears and anxieties are expansive and ever-changing. A child's fly phobia at 2 will be traded for a sudden fear of spiders at 3.

Greenspan says children can't soothe themselves back to sleep until they are cognitively developed enough to understand cause and effect, at which point they can say, "This is silly, it's just a dream." The ability to do that is gradual, occurring between 4 and 5 years of age.

Anne Sayre Wiseman, a psychotherapist and author of a guidebook for parents and teachers titled "Nightmare Help" (Ten Speed Press, 1989), believes children can learn to negotiate their nightmares. She suggests children draw the nightmare scenario and a solution, and use imaginary drama to make peace with the villains.

The method was dubbed conscious or lucid dreaming by dream researchers in the 1970s. The purpose, Wiseman says, is to empower children to find their own solution by suggesting the child confront a nightmare monster and resolve the conflict in the next dream episode.

Wiseman tried the method on her son when he was 4. He had a recurring nightmare that the barns and old buildings at his family home exploded into flames. "Why don't you try putting the fire out the next time the dream recurs," suggested Wiseman, careful to make no suggestions about how that might be achieved. A few days later, the boy bounded down to breakfast, announcing he had squelched the fire.

How did you do it? his mother asked.

"I peed on it!" he said.

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Taming the Nightmares

Here are some tips from experts on helping your child deal with nightmares.

* If the child calls, go immediately. Talk in a soothing voice, cuddle her and let her sleep with you if she asks. The goal is to make her feel safe, secure and loved.

* When your child says there's a monster in the closet, don't say, "That's silly honey, it's not real." This response gives him no means of coping. Children believe that as soon as you leave, the monster returns. Open the closet door, if the child asks. If the child understands that it's a dream, tell him it is like a story and the monster is only there in the story, not in waking time. Suggest the next time the dream comes to try making friends with the monster or to look for somebody to help.

* Don't interpret. Gently ask questions. Parents can ask the child to describe the dream in detail. How did you feel in that situation? Did anything happen yesterday that scared you or made you angry? Did Mommy or Daddy scare you? Offer yourself up as the bad guy, and don't criticize anything the child says.

* The day following a nightmare, if your child is talking about the dream, you might ask her to draw a picture of it. Ask her to explain the dream. Suggest she draw a different ending.

* Keep bedtime rituals and play low-key. Read soothing stories, listen to music, sing songs and hold hands before tucking your child into bed. Once he is in bed, turn down ambient noise (television, music, angry voices) and leave on a light.

* Censor violent or scary television, movies and stories. Remember that even children's books and Disney movies have scenes that can scare small children.

* For the child having frequent nightmares, it might help to set up a play theme each day exploring feelings such as those of abandonment, aggression, loss or conflict. The parent follows the child's lead, empathizing verbally. ("Oh boy, that sure is an angry bunny whacking Barney.") Playing out fantasies in the security of daylight can diminish fears or help work out emotional conflicts fueling nightmares. Similarly, stepping in to resolve problems can help. If your child's nightmares seem to be stimulated by fights with siblings or trouble at school, then try to change the situation.

* When to get help: If your child is having a lot of nightmares (more than a few a month) and appears to be fearful during the day, you may want to take him to see a mental health professional or pediatric sleep specialist.

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