Why does my 5 year old wake up screaming?

Q: My 5 year old stepdaughter wakes up in the middle of the night, sometimes more than once, screaming but won't say what's wrong or what she needs. Is that normal or should she be taken to a therapist?

A: In all likelihood, your stepdaughter is experiencing night terrors. Night terrors can be very frightening for parents, but are generally harmless for children. During a night terror, your child will often appear extremely upset. Her eyes may be open and she may get up and move around the room, but she is asleep. She will not respond to you because she is likely not aware of your presence. When a night terror ends, she will go back to sleep and won’t remember a moment of it in the morning (but you sure will!). The best thing you can do during a night terror is make sure she is safe until she falls back to sleep (soft touch and comforting words might help, but they might not). The cause of night terrors is uncertain, but some potential culprits are excessive fatigue prior to sleep, recent life changes/increases in stress and some medications. Again, night terrors are harmless and will likely subside on their own over time. However, if they are occurring frequently and consistently, it is a good idea to take her to her pediatrician to evaluate the potential presence of a childhood sleep disorder. A trip to the therapist is probably unnecessary.

Answered by Jeff Palitz, MFT

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