Why do children have more nightmares than adults?

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While nearly half of children (particularly in early childhood) are awakened by nightmares during their REM sleep phase, their frequency gradually decreases into adulthood. Even if individual differences remain, how can this reality be explained? Psychic development, misunderstandings of daily life, elaboration of reflection… so many elements that echo even in the dreams and nightmares of children, essential to its construction.

Both nightmares and bad dreams include dreams characterized by disturbing images and intense negative emotions, and the themes most often focus on physical or psychological threats. When nightmares wake up the sleeper differently than bad dreams, most studies don’t differentiate between them and group them under the term “disturbing dreams.”

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

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 Quebec, 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 reports that half of children aged 4 to 9 experience nightmares. The incidence rises to 72% for bad dreams in children aged 8.5 to 11 years. Overall, the frequency of nightmares decreases with the age of the child, but differences are observed depending on whether the explanation comes from the parents or from the child itself.

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

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

Nightmares and dreams are part of the child’s psychological development and also allow him to unconsciously express his frustrations and desires. Especially nightmares express our emotions, often those we have experienced during the day “, writes Stephan Valentin, a doctor of psychology and a specialist in early childhood, in his book. ” Because our psychic defenses are more relaxed, emotions can surface there more easily. “. Nightmares even play a role in regulating emotions and serve to neutralize the fears of the day. Because nightmares are linked to language and language learning, the older children get, the better they get at putting their emotions into words and the fewer nightmares they have do you have.

It should be noted that in most cases children are more likely to remember their nightmares than pleasant or neutral dreams. The content of nightmares generally progresses as follows: At 2 years: Fear of being bitten, eaten, or attacked; from 3 to 5 years: presence of powerful and evil animals (very practical to imagine because they are both familiar and different from humans to keep distance); from 6 to 12 years: menacing human figures, malevolent strangers, strange and dangerous beasts; from 13 to 16 years: Scenarios reflecting rejection, ridicule, discouragement, low self-esteem, control and even depression. It is therefore logical that adults have fewer nightmares as they get older because they are less exposed to these fears overall.

In addition, children experience other events which they do not yet understand and which reappear in one form or another in their nightmares. For example, during school lessons or when there is a change in his family (moving, divorce, arrival of a little brother or sister, etc.). They may also be more impressed by pictures on TV or by disturbing stories.

Between the ages of 7 and 12, the child experiences a “latency period” during which they restrain their sexual urges and devote themselves to learning and intellectual development. He also has an overflowing imagination, perhaps more important than that of an adult. Some argue that during this period of building reflection and developing a certain critical-rational spirit, the frequency of nightmares would be most important. The child’s brain is constantly building and this certainly affects their dreams and nightmares.

Finally, if children and teenagers have more nightmares than adults, it is surely because they are subject to more rules that they defy. The “prohibitions” of adults (do not hit, obey your parents…) and the rules of society (living with others, obey…) represent so many great conflicts that unconsciously express themselves in nightmares and that usually manifest themselves in the dissolve adulthood.

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

As with adults, nightmares in children can be related to anxiety, stress, behavioral problems, as well as external sources such as violence on television. The Canadian study shows 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 between nightmares and emotional disturbances is strongest. Another study showed that nightmares were linked to difficulties at school.

« 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 with children. For example, a study of 15-year-olds who had experienced a major traumatic event found that 100% reported recurrent disturbing dreams related to their trauma even six months after the event. ».

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