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Bullied Children Have More Nightmares and Night Terrors, Study Finds

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May 05, 2014 04:33 PM EDT
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An unusual sleep disorder known as exploding head syndrome is under researched and merits more study, according to Washington State University psychologist Brian Sharpless, who recently reviewed all the published scientific literature on the provocative disorder. (Photo : via Flickr user Adriano Agulló)

Nightmares in childhood have been linked to bullying, according to a new study.

UK children surveyed at 12 years old reported more nightmares if they had also been bullied when they were 8 and 10 years old, a team of researchers from the University of Warwick reports.

As more and more reports of bullying leading to serious social disorders, mental health problems or even suicide, bullying has received more attention from researchers and the media.

Disruptive sleep disorders such as sleepwalking, nightmares and night terrors are classified a parasomnias. According to WebMD, nightmares cause a person to abruptly awaken from deep sleep because of a vivid dream that can cause feelings of fear, terror and/or anxiety. A night terror is similar, resulting in an abrupt awakening from sleep but in a terrified state. Those who experience night terrors are usually unable to communicate during the event and have difficulty remembering it the following morning. Nightmares are typically more easily remembered and can be described by people who have had them.

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"Nightmares are relatively common in childhood, while night terrors occur in up to 10 percent of children," lead study author Suzet Tanya Lereya, a research fellow at University of Warwick in the UK, said in a statement. "If either occurs frequently or over a prolonged time period, they may indicate that a child/adolescent has or is being bullied by peers. These arousals in sleep may indicate significant distress for the child."

Lereya presented her team's research on Saturday at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The researchers found that out of 6,438 children included in the research, 555 (24.2 percent) nightmares, 598 (9.3 percent) had night terrors, 814 (12.6 percent) reported sleep walking and 2,315 (36 percent) had at least one type of parasomnia at age 12.

After adjusting for confounding elements such as physical or sexual abuse and family adversity before age 8 that would have skewed the results, it became apparent that children bullied 8 or 10 years old were significantly more likely to have nightmares, night terrors or sleep walking at age 12, the researchers said.

Interestingly, children who had been both a victim of bullying and a bully themselves were much more likely to have any parasomnia.

"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," said Dieter Wolke, a professor of developmental psychology and individual differences at University of Warwick. "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.

"General practitioners also should consider peer bullying as a potential precursor of nightmares or night terrors in children," Wolke added.

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