Children’s nightmares have been noted for centuries. A sixteenth-century Belgian doctor, for instance, made a list naming the fifty-two most common diseases affecting the children of that time. Nightmares received a position as number nine on that list. Nightmares occur more commonly among children than they do among adults. Studies have shown that adults who suffer from chronic nightmares often have exhibited these problems since childhood.
Patricia Garfield conducted a study involving 120 children, 109 from America and eleven from India; the majority of these children were between the ages of five and eight. She managed to collect a sample of 247 dreams, which she classified simply as “good dreams” or “bad dreams.” Out of this total, 158 (sixty-four percent) she cataloged as “bad dreams.” Nightmares with an overarching theme of being chased were reported seventy-seven times. Dreams in which the child senses danger but is never directly threatened accounted for a significantly lower number of the nightmares, with only twenty-eight reported. Finally, in the third place, are nightmares in which the dreamer is injured or killed by accidental means. This category had twenty-six dreams.
There were only eighty-nine dreams with a positive theme reported in this particular study. Thirty dreams were of general good times, playing with friends, and trips and holidays. Fifteen dreams involved the dreamer receiving some sort of gift. These two classifications represented fifty percent of the total good dreams. Garfield reported these findings in her book Nightmares in Children. She also took time to offer parents general advice on how to deal with the frequency of nightmares.
David Foulkes conducted a long-term study on children’s dreams, as well. Based on his observations, he concluded that the dreams of young children and young adults do not differ greatly from each other. Contrary to Garfield, Foulkes found that the dreams of children were not predominantly disagreeable or terrifying. He reached these observations based on his initial laboratory studies of two groups of fourteen children, but his study came to include approximately forty in total after additional subjects were added to replace those who dropped out. While Foulkes believed that the only reliable representation of dreams comes from laboratory research, his evidence is in disagreement with the general psychiatric opinion.
Studies have discovered several traits common in children’s dreams. One of the more remarkable characteristics is that children seem to have significantly more nightmares in which they are the victims of violence. Nightmares in which the dreamer is pursued, whether by monsters, strangers, or wild animals, are the most common type of dreams with negative content. There is also a general lack of pleasant exchanges; this is especially true for boys. Fear and fear-related emotions are twice as frequent in the dreams of young children when compared to the dreams of adults. This may be, in part, because children often feel that they have no control over their waking lives. They are anxious about their ability to control external events, and this feeling is reflected in the content of their dreams.
One of the leading researchers into the phenomena of nightmares is Ernest Hartmann. He developed a theory of “boundaries” regarding the frequency of not only nightmares, but of remembering one’s dreams. Hartmann maintains that, generally speaking, the nightmares of children stem from their underlying feelings of vulnerability. As a child grows, he or she may develop a stronger defense to the stresses of waking life. Children in this group have what Hartmann calls, “thick boundaries.” They often cease to experience nightmares as they grow up, except for the same sporadic bad dreams that affect the majority of the population. They also have a significantly lower frequency of remembering their dreams. At the other end of the spectrum are children with “thin boundaries.” These individuals often retain a sense of the vulnerability they experienced during their childhood; they continue to experience vivid nightmares into adulthood.
A discussion of nightmares in children would be incomplete without mentioning night terrors. While some sleep researchers insist that they are not exactly nightmares because they occur during the fourth stage of sleep and not during the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle, the terrifying effect that they have on children is undeniable. The exact cause and source of these experiences is unknown, but studies have shown that, for the most part, the frequency of night terrors decreases as the child ages. In one study of twenty-three children who regularly experienced night terrors, twenty-two had the phenomena stop completely after the removal of their adenoids. The correlation between the two has not been researched fully, but the original study opened the door for further investigation.