Childhood nightmares are nothing out of the ordinary, as almost every child experiences a bad dream at least once. However, recent research findings suggest that frequent childhood nightmares and night terrors should not be ignored, and may be a predictor for a child’s future mental illness as an adolescent.
An article published in the scientific journal Sleep is shedding light on how childhood sleep disorders could foreshadow psychotic experiences later in adolescence, and could lead to future mental illness. The study, which was published on Feb. 28, 2014, was carried out by a research team out of the University of Warwick, in the UK. The team, lead by Professor Peter Wolke sutdied more than 6,800 subjects, all children between the ages of two and nine years old. The researchers analyzed each of the subjects six time to gather comprehensive and holistic data with which they based conclusions on. The analysis included interviewing parents of the children in the study about the frequency and severity of nightmares or night terrors they may have had, and if the occurrences were habitual in nature. The children were also assessed again around age 12 for any signs of mental illness, including hallucinations and delusions, among other psychotic experiences.
Nightmares, which occur during REM stage of sleep, are thought to be highly common in young children, and often result in children awaking with fear. Night terrors are far more severe than nightmares, and occur during deep sleep. They often cause a child to shout and thrash in sleep, and wake up in terror with an increased heart and breathing rate, sweating, tears and intense feelings of panic or fear.
After completing extensive research, scientists found a strong link between nightmares and night terrors experience in childhood and future mental illness prevalent in adolescence. According to result findings, children between the ages of two and nine who experienced frequent and habitual nightmares are more than three times more prone to having psychotic experiences in adolescence. Further, children who suffer from regular bouts of night terrors have twice as much risk of having issues with mental health during teenage years.
Professor Peter Wolke, one of the head researchers of this study in which nightmares are said to predict mental health in adolescents, links nightmares and night terrors to several causes. Wolke states that these sleep disturbances could simply be due to poor diet or an irregular sleep schedule, and suggests to parents that children should not consume excessive sugar before bed, and that children should have a sleep routine. Other reasons for habitual nightmares and night terrors may be due to bullying and other emotional traumas that lead to feelings of intense anxiety. The stress and nervousness that causes these sleep problems may be a main cause of mental episodes in adolescence.
While the findings of this study may raise concerns in parents of children with frequent nightmares, researchers have urged parents not to grow alarmed, as this study is merely suggestive and not definitive. However, this recent research which supports that nightmares in childhood can predict mental illness in adolescence is highly important in helping children receive the interventions necessary to avoid or reduce symptoms of mental illness.
By Allison Longstreet