A study of 12-year-olds, conducted by researchers at Warwick University, has found that children’s nightmares could be a sign they are being bullied.
Parents and GPs have subsequently been warned to stay alert for sleep problems in children – especially night terrors, which researchers argue “may indicate significant distress for the child.”
The investigation involved the interviewing of 6,438 children at the ages of eight and 10 about their nightmares. When they turned 12 they were also asked about night terrors and sleep-walking.
Nightmares occur during the dream part of sleep, and children generally do not move or make much noise. They can however vividly rememver the dream and often wake up in fear.
Night terrors however occur during deep sleep and typically children are fast asleep but appear awake. They may sit up and scream but it is unlikely they will remember the experience when they wake up.
The study found one quarter of 12-year-olds had nightmares, whilst almost one in ten had night terrors.
Only 12% said they sleep walked, but overall, more than one in three had at least one of the night-time problems.
Researchers took into account several factors that can affect stress levels in children, such as abuse and mental health problems. On the whole, they found that there was a particularly strong link between bullying and sleep problems.
Dr Dieter Wolke who helped carry out the study said: “Our findings indicate that being bullied is a significant stress/trauma that leads to increased risk of sleep arousal problems, such as nightmares or night terrors.
“It is an easily identifiable indicator that something scary is being processed during the night. Parents should be aware that this may be related to experiences of being bullied by peers, and it provides them with an opportunity to talk with their child about it.”
Sue Minto, Head of the charity, ChildLine, stresses that while relationship problems and exam stress may also be linked to nightmares in children, the key thing is for parents and GPs to recognise problems and address them as soon as possible.
“Parents should explore ways to support their child to open up and share their fears as this is the first step to making things better,” she said.
“Often children can’t cope with worries on their own and it is essential that we find ways to help children turn to a trusted adult.”