The Boy in The Bottle? A Dreamscape of Nighttime Terror

bad-dreamI hear moaning and mumbled words of protest from the boys’ room, but I don’t go in until the moaning turns to wailing.

“No, nooo, I don’t want, I don’t…” Our eldest in in his bed, shaking violently and shielding his head from some unseen assailant. His fist flails out, narrowly missing the face of his baby brother who has, against our explicit instructions, climbed down from the top bunk to get into bed with his brother and who is, miraculously, still asleep.

I watch as his face contorts in fear and panic, his breathing rapid and ragged, clumps of sweat-soaked hair clinging to his forehead. He begins to thrash again and I, worried that he’s going to hurt his brother, try to calm him down. His eyes are open and he responds to me, but the horror he feels is real and raw and won’t go away. Eventually I pull him from his bed and rock him on my lap, but his mind is tumbling in waves of dread, and he gasps and sobs, “Mommmy!” as though he’s being pulled under.

He’s had a nightmare. I know it’s not been what’s called ‘night terror’ because he was awake and responsive, but it’s very close to it. Only about 3-6% of children experience night terrors, but those of you who have witnessed them know it’s, well, terrifying. Your child screams, shouts, thrashes, eyes black pools of unseeing panic, and, because he’s fast asleep, the only thing you can do is watch it unfold and keep him from falling out of bed. The constant of night terrors is their inconsolability – parents are powerless to help their child through them. It sucks.

Eventually he calms and falls back into a deep sweaty sleep, and my wife and I agree that we have a fairly good understanding of why he was suffering from such nightmare-inducing anxiety. On this day he’d started an intensive swimming course, and he had a casting call for a television commercial. When asked, he said that both were easy and unproblematic, but we know that they were sources of stress and apprehension.

“Why do boys do that?” my wife asks as we sit in the living room. “Why do they bottle up their emotions so much?” Our eldest, certainly, is emotionally – shall we say – ‘restrained.’ He tends to push feelings – both positive and negative – deep down into into the bowels of his subconscious. But our youngest is quite the opposite, so I answer my wife, “I’m not sure they do.”

On the face of it I instinctively agree – boys are more emotionally restrained, more prone to hiding their feelings, than girls. But I don’t really know, so I do a bit of research.

Sleep terrors in children, it would seem, are more likely to occur in males than females. So okay, if there is a correlation between sublimating emotions and sleep terrors, that’s fairly damning. If the suppression of emotions in males carries over into adulthood, however, which many people believe, then there’s little to explain why night terrors afflict adult males and females in equal ratio.

Tara M. Chaplin of Yale University has sifted through the results of over 160 separate studies into the question of whether boys and girls express their emotions differently. Chaplin writes, “Our findings suggest that there are small but significant gender differences in emotion expressions, with larger gender differences emerging at certain ages and in certain contexts.”

An article on the website says that, “Chaplin found that the girls internalized their emotions more than the boys, but they also displayed more positive emotions. For instance, the girls had higher rates of anxiety and sadness than the boys, but outwardly expressed more cheerfulness and joy. The boys, on the other hand, were more likely to exhibit anger and aggression than the girls. But these variances were only evident when the children were in the presence of strangers. When they were with their parents, the children expressed a wide range of emotions, making the gender differences virtually non-existent.”

In other words, the idea that the sublimation of emotion is more common in boys than girls may be more a societal construct than a reality. If there’s a correlation between nightmares and the inability or unwillingness to show emotion, then the fact that the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health – among others –  have shown that the occurrence of nightmares is roughly equal in boys and girls until the age of 13, then become far more prevalent in girls than boys, seems to belie this belief.

My experience tells me that men are taught, from an early age, to internalize their emotions, to hide the full range of their emotional lives behind high walls of machismo. I still believe this to be true. But the walls are crumbling. Perhaps it’s a function of natural selection – women are less likely to mate with hairy chest-beating males than they once were. Witness the prevalence of ‘manscaping.’ Or perhaps our present society, with women more and more in the role of primary breadwinner, is making the way open for men to be, well, less “manly.” And by ” less manly” I mean to act less like assholes.

My oldest boy suffers from more anxiety than seems strictly necessary, and he tends to sublimate his feelings. A lot. Is it because he’s a boy? I’m not sure. I do wish he were more emotionally open, but I tend to think it’s just a fundamental aspect of his personality, not his gender. When he’s screaming in the middle of the night because his demons are rending his psyche, I worry that we’ve somehow denied him of his ability to share those demons with us. Or maybe he’s just a kid having a nightmare. It’s probably the latter.

Sleep well, my boys. Pleasant dreams. Please, please, please, pleasant dreams.

17 thoughts on “The Boy in The Bottle? A Dreamscape of Nighttime Terror

    • It’s no fun, I know. Sleep is indeed key, and anything that disrupts that, including growth spurts, seem to throw them out of whack. Pleasant dreams to your boys!


  1. Situations like this can make you feel powerless as a parent. We haven’t gone through anything so severe in our home, but a little boy I used to babysit for experienced them. As I stayed there overnight quite a bit, his parents made sure I was aware of the issue and how they would like me to handle it. It seems that, instead of focusing on the terrors themselves, they opted to focus on what they could control. They made his room a sanctuary where he was surrounded by serene decor and comfortable spots to relax (sleeping wasn’t restricted to just his bed) with plenty of open space that could be softly lit up via a switch just next to his bed. It didn’t look like the typical little boys room with toys here and there, but had a sort of spa like feel to it. He could move throughout the room and get comfortable wherever he wanted, and this seemed to help quite a bit. A change of scenery, it seems, even though he was just moving across the room.


  2. I feel you! My girl’s suffered her share of night terrors since she was 2.5 (she’s now 3). And it takes so much to come to the logical conclusion you have come to here – about gender and emotion repression. We are still kicking ourselves blue and black blaming ourselves for having moved across the globe with her leading to her terrors. My girl is highly emotional and shows not just positive but quite a bit of aggression like many boys I’ve seen as well. Going by everything I’ve seen with her I couldn’t agree with you more on the ‘not-so-relevant’ aspect of gender to these terror fits. I have read a lot about IQ and the relevance of higher IQ to terrors such as these like Mike W points out above. And of course, same with stress. I’m not sure this has anything to do with what we are and we are not providing for our children, one psychologist explained to me that some children are just much much more resistant to change and adapt much slower than other kids because they perceive way more of a given situation than other kids (again like Mike said above). As a result, their commitment to their existing routine is so much deeper than most other kids that adding, removing or moving anything around causes much more stress in such kids … some end up expressing them both awake and while asleep like mine and I guess some others let them out mainly at night like yours! I hope your kids, you and your wife get through this with as much strength as you can find. My husband and I broke and took a whole month or more to understand, accept and not stress about our daughter’s situation, feeding off of her stress and pain! Good luck!


    • It’s really hard to watch your kid suffer and not be able to do anything about it, but, well, you can’t do anything about it. The fact that they never remember their night terrors (as opposed to nightmares) is somewhat comforting.
      I think that parents generally stress too much about their kids and beat themselves up when there’s no real reason to. As long as you’re providing a safe and loving environment, there isn’t any reason to think that you’re somehow screwing up your offspring. (See “If You Love Them, Let Them Fail”.)
      We live in Hungary, and both of our boys were born and have spent their whole lives here. Soon we’ll be moving to Barcelona, though, and I am a bit concerned that the stress involved (for everybody) will take its toll on the boys. They’ll be starting school in a Catalan-speaking environment, and will understand very, very little for the first several months. I think that would cause anyone a good deal of anxiety, but for someone like my oldest, who’s a perfectionist, a worrier, and a bit of a stress-case, I think it will be particularly difficult. We’ll see. No matter what, it all seems to work out in the end as long as you have a positive mental attitude, shower your kids with affection but not smother them, and find a balance between being there to help them and letting them work things out on their own.
      Thanks a lot for visiting and for your comments, I appreciate both!


  3. My son had night terrors too, usually after an unusually busy day and late evening. It was so hard… He is 12 now and still has some sleep disturbances but the more we talk about his life and feelings the better he rests.


    • Hi Lisa,
      Yup, as I so eloquently put it in the article, it sucks. Routines help, as do communication and early bedtimes, but in the end there’s only so much you can do. Good luck with your son – I’m sure everything will be much easier once he hits his teen years. 😉


  4. My oldest gets night terrors too, but she is a girl. She does struggle with complex emotions, while my son expresses them freely. My husband had terrors as a child as well, and I do agree that it is much more common for boys to struggle with burying their emotions.


  5. We can relate. It was in the 3rd year mostly, and mostly after over-extension, over-tiredness. Saying and doing nothing, a containment and calm strategy while your heart drops out of your ribcage for your child was what ‘worked’ best. Prevention favors strict discipline in parents to get the children to bed early. Really this is good for everybody: the farmer’s sleep schedule. early-early, and regular.

    I have also heard night terrors could be a sign of high intelligence in children. I wonder if it is a sign of highly perceptive children in that such children perceive more about which they may stress about. Perceptiveness is part of intelligence.


    • Yeah, Mike, it’s strange for me when parents tell me that they put their young children to bed at 10 or 11 at night. I absolutely believe that the better they sleep, the better they sleep. In other words, while you might think that making them overtired would lead to long, deep sleep, we’ve found the opposite to be true. Longer naps lead to longer nights of sleep, for example, which on the face of it is counter-intuitive.

      Regarding the correlation between intelligence and sensitivity, I’ve read that too. And since our kids – yours and mine – are freaking geniuses, well, there you go. (I’ve read that over 80% of parents believe that their children possess above-average intelligence. Hmmm.)

      So far our youngest – 3.5 – hasn’t experience night terror. Fingers crossed there.

      Thanks for visiting and for taking the time to comment – appreciated.


      • LOL. The 80-20 rule. Thanks for the informative reply. I guess the only way to confirm the question of intelligence correlating with the night terrors would be attempted objectivity in testing kids with night terrors versus those without. I’ve not yet found that study partly because I haven’t looked for it. There are so many factors to test, even a correlative study ought to be distrusted until the many factors and alternatives could be tested as well. As with many things, perhaps multi-factors would once again show themselves influential.


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