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Ex-etiquette: 4-year-old's behavior could be night terrors

Jann Blackstone, Tribune News Service on

Published in Family Living

Q. Lately my four-year-old child has been waking up in the middle of the night crying. He doesn't appear to know where he is and it takes quite a bit to calm him down. His mother and I just separated and he goes back and forth between our homes every couple of days and I attribute it to that, but I'm not sure, and I'm not sure what to do about it. What's good ex-etiquette?

A. Before we get to the good ex-etiquette aspect of my answer, let's take a look at what's going on and why your child may be manifesting these behaviors. An educated guess, and I emphasize guess is that your child is experiencing "night terrors." Night terrors are different from night mares in that they originate in a different part of the brain and while a child may remember a night mare the next day, they have no recollection of a night terror.

Night terrors are most often seen in children 4-12. This may happen because their central nervous system (which regulates sleep and waking brain activity) is still maturing. Studies show that about 80 percent who have night terrors have a family member who also experienced them.

If this is a night terror, there are quite a few things that could be contributing to them, from being overtired to taking a new medication. Stress is also a common factor, and well as sleeping in a new environment or being away from home.

Now here's the good ex-etiquette part of my answer. The first thing you do is consult his mother. (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 2, "Ask for help if you need it.") Since you just separated that may not be the first thing you want to do, but separating may be the contributing factor to your child's problem and you and mom have to figure this one out together. (Good ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 1, "Put the children first.") Although separated parents may take it for granted that their child will go back and forth between their homes, the back and forth life may not be the best parenting plan for your child. Some kids can handle it, some kids cannot. Your child may be one of those children that does not do well under those circumstances. If that's true, the unselfish thing to do is to decide with his other parent which would be the best primary home and look for additional time with the other parent by being more flexible with the schedule. That may mean he sleeps primarily at one home and visits the other on weekends. Rather than full over nights every couple of days, dinner visits may be more appropriate until he gets older and more accustomed to his parents no longer living together.

This is when a parent might say, "Well, that doesn't seem fair. Why does he or she get more time than me?" Stop it. Time is not the issue. Your child is struggling. You don't make your decisions in your best interest. You make them in the best interest of your child.


In closing, there's no treatment for night terrors, but if they continue, consult your child's pediatrician. You can help prevent them by reducing your child's stress. Get on the same page with mom or dad and establish and stick to a bedtime routine that's simple and relaxing, and prevent your child from becoming overtired by staying up too late. This can only happen if you are doing your best to co-parent -- and if you are, that's good ex-etiquette.

(Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation," and the founder of Bonus Families, Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website at

(c)2017 Jann Blackstone

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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