July 02, 2015

Q: My 4yr old tears everything up during nap time that she can manage to get her hands on: foam pillows, the stuffing out of teddys, toilet paper, and even her own books. I've tried to explain to her that it's unacceptable behavior. We've also tried punishing her, and then giving her more attention because we thought it was her acting out. Nothing is working. Does anyone else have this problem or a solution to this? I'm at a loss and need to understand why she does this.

A: Dear Sunshine4606:

It is possible that your daughter is experiencing a harmless phenomenon called Pavor Nocturnus or night terrors. This is not uncommon in children, and generally it is outgrown fairly quickly. The child falls asleep normally but then awakens in a confused state of mind--often seeming very frightened or upset, and sometimes saying or doing wild and meaningless things. Later, the child does not remember the episode clearly. The clue that suggests to me that this may be the problem here is the fact that your daughter tears up her belongings during nap time when she has fallen asleep--but not at other times.

The cause of this condition is not understood, but it may be related to sleepwalking and sleeptalking, and tends to run in families. The part of the brain that controls sleep and wakefulness is somehow not fully coordinated until the child is older. Sometimes the condition is made worse by emotional stress, but the root cause is unknown.

If your daughter is suffering from night terrors, she is really not awake when tears up her belongings and therefore is not aware of what she is doing.Therefore, blaming her or giving explanations that what she is doing is unacceptible will not help. Trying to reduce stress in her life may be helpful however, although there is no actual cure for this condition except time.

You may wish to discuss this problem with your daughter's pediatrician, who can determine if my guess is correct.

Elizabeth Berger MD

Child Psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids with Character"

Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Berger