New research from the University of Warwick in the U.K. has concluded that children who experience night terrors are at risk of developing traits of psychosis in adolescence. The occurrence of nightmares and night terrors, also known as Sleep Terror Disorder, in young children predisposes them to develop delusions, hallucinations, and other forms of psychosis before entering adulthood. The University of Warwick’s press release page explained that children between the ages of 2 and 9 who experienced nightmares were around one and a half times more susceptible to suffer psychotic episodes. Increasingly, children who were troubled with night terrors had a doubled risk of developing problems related to psychosis and that children of 12 years of age who experienced nightmares were more than three times more likely to suffer from some form of psychosis before the onset of puberty.
According to the University of Warwick, nightmares are commonly suffered by children, and tend to occur during the second half of the sleep cycle during REM (rapid eye movement). Nightmares are typically accompanied by sudden waking, and sensations of fear, worry, as well as heart palpitations. Sleep Terror Disorder is classically understood as a night terror, a type of parasomnia that is characterized by extreme terror and the temporary inability to regain consciousness. Night terrors occur in deep sleep (non-REM) cycles and those who experience them usually undergo violent thrashing and rapid body movements upon waking.
The research conducted by the university analyzed data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. This group, based in England, involved more that 6,700 children between the ages of 2 and 9, assessing them six times over the course of the study, with interviews of the children conducted at age 12. The interviews focussed on questions regarding the child’s own experience with nightmares, night terrors, sleep walking, hallucinations, delusions and other forms of thought interference.
While nightmares and night terrors are suffered by most children at some point, if they persist throughout childhood it could be an early indicator of significant psychological dysfunction later on in life. The university found that the probability of experiencing bouts of psychosis increased as the incidence of nightmares increased. Children who were reported to experience one period of recurrent nightmares saw a rise of 16 percent risk in developing some form of psychosis; and those children who reported three sustained periods of nightmares throughout the 6 year period saw an increased risk of 56 percent.
The study showed that nightmares seemed to be more commonly experienced in comparison to the frequency of night terrors. By the age of twelve, around a quarter of children who participated in the study reported being troubled by nightmares over the course of six months prior to the interview, with less than 10 percent experiencing night terrors during that period. The study did not find, however, any link between an increase in susceptibility to psychosis and children who only experienced insomnia or night walking.
Lucie Russell, the Director of Campaigns at YoungMinds, expressed that the study’s findings allow for early identification of signs of mental illness, which is vital to children who are suffering from these experiences and to their parents who are trying to find appropriate methods of treatment. Russell also articulated that early detection is crucial in helping children offset the entrenchment of mental illness as they advance into adulthood.
YoungMinds, a U.K. based organization dedicated to fostering good mental health in children, estimates that 850,000 suffer mental health problems. These children are often isolated by their peers, unhappy and are at higher risk of developing depression and inflicting self harm, possibly resulting in suicide. Those with mental health issues are also more likely to be engaged in risky or criminal behavior. YoungMinds states that 95 percent of imprisoned young offenders struggle with at least one form of mental disorder. If children are left undiagnosed or their behavioral troubles are not understood, they are more prone to become withdrawn, disruptive, or disturbed as the grow older.
The results of this study will provide a useful understanding of how to determine if a child is predisposed to developing psychotic traits as they mature. While the results found that children who experience night terrors are more likely to develop psychotic traits in adolescence, this information should not be interpreted to any extreme. The university articulates that the data was based on the children’s own accounts and should be interpreted wisely. Three out of four children are subjected to nightmares at a young age, and night terrors, while less common, are not rare. Dr. Helen Fisher, of King’s College London, advises that the best thing a parent can do is promote a lifestyle that encourages healthy sleep habits, and an environment that provides the best quality of sleep for the child, removing all stimuli such as the television or video games from the room. Diet is also important and parents should avoid giving their children sugary drinks at night before bedtime. Ultimately a healthy environment supports a healthy life, and the mental health of children is no exception to that rule.
By Natalia Sanchez