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Why do children have more nightmares than adults?

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If nightmares wake nearly half of children (especially during early childhood) during their REM sleep phase, their frequency gradually decreases until adulthood. Even if individual differences persist, how can this reality be explained? Psychological development, misunderstandings of daily life, elaboration of reflection… so many elements that reverberate even in the dreams and nightmares of children, which are essential for its construction.

Both nightmares and bad dreams involve dreams marked by disturbing images, intense negative emotions, and whose themes most often center on physical or psychological threats. If nightmares wake the sleeper unlike bad dreams, most studies do not distinguish between them and group them under the term “disturbing dreams”.

In addition, nightmares should not be confused with night terrors, which occur at the start of the night, during the deep slow-wave sleep stage. They can appear from the age of 6 months – to reach a peak of frequency between 3 and 4 years -, while nightmares begin from 2 years; they take place in the second half of the night and during the REM stage.

Distribution of sleep stages during a night in children, showing where the main childhood parasomnias occur, including nightmares (only the first seven hours are shown). © Dominique Petit, Antonio Zadra, Le Médecin du Québec, 2014

Statistically, children are much more prone to nightmares than adults. A Canadian study then looked at the prevalence of disturbing dreams in children and their possible causes. Compiling data from previous studies, researchers report that half of children aged 4 to 9 have nightmares. The frequency rises to 72% for bad dreams in children between 8 and a half and 11 years old. The frequency of nightmares decreases overall with the child’s age, but differences are observed depending on whether the declaration is made by the parents or by the child himself.

Nightmares and dreams are part of the psychological development of the child

« In fact, the nightmare occurs when the dream has not succeeded in fulfilling its function of protector and guardian of sleep: the fabricated scenario fails to channel and neutralize the anxieties of the little sleeper. », Explains Lyliane Nemet-Pier, psychologist and psychoanalyst specializing in sleep disorders. ” These flood it, submerge it and wake it up brutally. He is then in a very real state of fear, insofar as, until the age of 3 or 4, he still has difficulty in perfectly distinguishing reality from imagination. ».

Nightmares and dreams are part of the psychological development of the child and also allow him to express his frustrations and desires, unconsciously. In particular, nightmares express our emotions, often those experienced during the day “, writes in his book Stephan Valentin, doctor in psychology and specialist in early childhood. ” It is because our psychic defenses are more relaxed that emotions can more easily surface there. “. Nightmares would even play a role in the regulation of emotion and serve to neutralize the anxieties of the day. As nightmares are linked to language and language learning, the older children grow, the more they can put their emotions into words, and the fewer nightmares they have.

It should be noted that, in the majority of cases, children remember their nightmares more than their pleasant or neutral dreams. The content of nightmares generally develops like this: at 2 years old: fear of being bitten, eaten or attacked; from 3 to 5 years old: presence of powerful and nasty animals (very practical to imagine because they are both familiar and different from humans to keep distance); from 6 to 12 years old: menacing human figures, malevolent strangers, strange and dangerous beasts; from 13 to 16 years old: scenarios reflecting rejection, ridicule, discouragement, lack of self-esteem, control and even depression. It is therefore logical that as adults grow up they have fewer nightmares, because overall they are less subject to these anxieties.

In addition, children experience more events that they do not yet understand and which reappear in their nightmares, in one form or another. For example during school learning or if a change takes place in his family (moving house, divorce, arrival of a little brother or a little sister, etc.). They may also be more impressed by images seen on television or by disturbing stories.

From 7 to 12 years old, the child experiences a “latency period” during which he curbs his sexual urges and devotes himself to learning and intellectual development. He also has an overflowing imagination, perhaps much more important than that of the adult. Some argue that it is during this period when reflection is built and where a certain critical-rational spirit develops that the frequency of nightmares would be the most important. The child’s brain is constantly building and this certainly has an impact on his dreams and nightmares.

Finally, if children and adolescents have more nightmares than adults, it is certainly because they are subject to more rules to which they oppose. The “prohibitions” of adults (not hitting, obeying parents…) and the rules of society (living with others, obeying…) represent so many major conflicts which are expressed unconsciously during nightmares and which dissipate. normally in adulthood.

Nightmares can be triggered by stress or traumatic events, in both children and adults

As with adults, children’s nightmares can also be related to anxiety, stress, behavioral issues, as well as external sources like exposure to violence on television. The Canadian study reveals that there is a significant positive association between the frequency of disturbing dreams and behavioral “problems” in children (shyness, anxiety, depression, social problems, attention problems, delinquency and aggression ); the association being the strongest between nightmares and emotional disturbances. Another study showed that nightmares were associated with academic difficulties.

« In adults, nightmares are strongly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as various traumatic experiences write the Canadian researchers. ” An equally strong relationship exists in children. For example, a study of 15-year-olds who had experienced a major traumatic event found that even six months after the event, 100% reported recurrent disturbing dreams related to their trauma. ».

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