Study on nightmares and there causes

Nightmares are essentially negative emotions felt during the dream state. They elicit no movement during sleep and when a person wakes up from it, he or she can recall many but not all details. The environment, consisting of the society in which one lives and the experiences to which one is exposed, can affect types of dreams. These sociocultural factors can be considered the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate. Innate factors of age and presence of mental disabilities can be regarded as the nature argument. To what extent do sociocultural and innate factors influence nightmares in children? Young children have nightmares, many out of fear of abandonment; at that age, they have the need to be loved more than most other ages. However, this fear is not contained to a single culture; children have nightmares in every nation. Many parents try to avoid nightmares by putting their children to bed early; common culture shows that people sleep early to be well-rested but maybe sleep does much more than that; it might be part of the de-stressing process each person needs at the end of the day, an outlet to renew and apply the adage “every day is a new day.”

Sociocultural causes include movies children may have watched the night right before the nightmare. It was long believed that scary movies would induce nightmares and children would wake up in the middle of the night, scared to go back to sleep. In addition, children who have suffered war trauma and orphans are prone to nightmares. The environment has an effect on one’s dreams. Children need more care from parents or guardians than another age; and those who are not guaranteed such mental safety relieve that stress in their dreams via nightmares. Sociocultural factors that may influence nightmares in children include TV/movies, stress, and war trauma.

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Fisher and Wilson (1987) reported that many parents blamed their children’s nightmares on TV shows. Their children said that scary dreams were related to something they watched on TV (Muris et al., 2000). Children report watching TV as the most often done activity weekly, followed by playing computer games (Schredl et al., 2008). When children four- to eleven-years-old watched TV, they developed sleeping disorders (Owens et al., 1999). Thompson & Christakis (2005) found that infants and toddlers also developed irregular sleeping schedules due to excessive TV-viewing. Schredl and Pallmer (1997) concluded that the content of nightmares was influenced by fairy tales, cinema, and TV. One possibility for this excess in nightmares could be the mental insecurity in their lives and the viewing of movies that elicit a similar fear that triggered the nightmare from their real-life fear, not the fear from the movie. However, Schredl et al. (2008) found that fourteen percent of their sample reported watching police and criminal fiction without having an expected increased amount of nightmares. This discrepancy could be due to the fact that they have an interest in the topic or they feel secure in their environment.

An experiment (Foulkes et al., 1967) consisted of thirty-two male children, ages ranging between six and twelve, with families in the middle class staying two nights in the laboratory for the experiment with one night at home in between the two to rest. Half the boys watched a short film about the old West, a hostile stimulus about Native Americans attacking European settlers, while the other half watched a non-violent film about baseball on the first night, and on the second night, the boys watched the other film. Both the younger and older boys showed more interest in the Western film. They had nightmares twice as much on Baseball nights than on Western nights. The difference in the two films had no effect on sleep onset or time to the initial REM period.

The myth of watching scary or violent movies before bedtime is false. The nonaggressive Baseball film elicited more vivid dreams that were more aggressive and scary than those elicited by the violent Western film. Even though the Baseball film preceded a more frightening dream, the boys had no greater difficulty in falling asleep on that night than on the night they watched the Western film. Watching a more intense, violent movie worked off more stress, and then the stress did not have to be relieved in the boys’ dreams through nightmares. It seems as if the “greater viewing involvement” the young boys have towards the films may release “accumulated psychological tensions” as opposed to the seemingly obvious effect of exposing them to more stress leading to nightmares (Foulkes et al., 1967).

Another study has found a greater number of nightmares after adults watch a violent film as opposed to a peaceful film. The subjects were “sophisticated intellectual types” who did not pay much attention to the films shown to them. As opposed to the young boys’ interest in the violent film, these adults were more interested in the nonviolent film (Foulkes & Rechtschaffen, 1964). This cause in nightmares is due to the stress-relief effect; watching violent films releases anxiety and such emotions, and without them, people will have such emotions permeate their dreams.

Both studies, regarding adults and children viewing violent and nonviolent films, suggest that if the film that attracts more interest from the individual viewer contains more violence, the less aggressive the plot will be in their dreams. However, most adults did not have much interest in the violent film which explains their higher amount of nightmares.


After watching the violent and nonviolent films, the low distortion of the boys’ dream content indicates that everyday experiences interfere with dreams and that the content is rarely out of the ordinary (Foulkes et al., 1967). Berrien (1935) found that more activity during the day precedes emotionally devoid dreams. Events right before sleep have some impact on the nature of some of his participants’ dreams. Attendance in usual day activities has little influence on dreams. Unusual night or evening activities that cause lack of sleep inhibit the frequency of dreams. According to parental reports of their young children and preteens (Owens et al., 1991) and self-reports of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds who watch enticing television shows (Van den Bulck, 2000), the children sleep less as a result of watching too much television. Sleep deprivation is also linked to computer game play (Tazawa & Okada, 2001) negatively in relation to time.

Sadeh, Raviv, and Gruber (2000) said that sleep in children is sensitive to cultural and psychosocial influences. Social influences include but are not limited to parents, personality, and education (Morrell, 1999; Rona, Gulliford & Chinn, 1998; Sadeh & Anders, 1993; Van Tassel, 1985). Stress and trauma can cause nightmares and scare the child awake. They “defined poor sleep as sleep that is characterized by aˆ¦ a sleep percentage lower than 90 aˆ¦ or aˆ¦ waking three times or more per night on average.” The parents’ higher education level had improved sleep quality, and family stress caused poorer sleep quality.

Families living in areas exposed to war conditions have children who are more concerned about their parents and take adult responsibilities earlier than do children in safe conditions (Yule, 2002; Punamaki, 1987, 2000). As a result, they are more concerned about threat towards their family, friends, and homes in their dreams. The stress they get from worrying about others induces nightmares, reality imposing on the unconscious mind.

Crugnola et al. (2008) compared children’s dreams in April and June. Exams for the end of elementary school were held in June and it may have been stressful for the children. Males showed an increase of female characters in their dreams and an increase in aggressive interaction, but a decrease in physical aggression. Dreams involving positive emotions and events increased in frequency as well. Girls showed a similar decrease in the male/female percentage of characters in their dreams and a decrease in physical aggression. Spain (Oberst, Charles, & Chamarro, 2005), the United States (Saline, 1999), and Switzerland (Strauch & Lederbogen, 1999) have similar distributions concerning aggression. Stress in real-life decreased physical aggression possibly because stress is generally caused by fear that one cannot do anything about the situation or fear over the outcome of the situation. Also, stress increased physical interaction, possibly as a stress release. In the case of watching TV, nightmares decreased from watching TV as a stress reliever. In the case of exams, the stress that needs to be relieved is the child’s reality, and the fear increases nightmares.

Orphans reported more dreams than did non-orphans. Girl orphans reported more dreams than did the boys, while there was not a difference among the boy and girl non-orphans. Boys reported more aggression, while girls’ dreams involved anxiety. Older children reported more bizarre dreams. Children who have had traumatic experiences have dreams with death and destruction and negative feelings (Punamaki et al., 2005). Although the general effect of being an orphan is dominant in this study, there is still an inconsistency between demographic factors. There seems to be more of an effect of gender and age probably due to environmental factors, the way older children are treated, the difference in treatment between girls and boys, etc.

War trauma

Children in war conditions have more nightmares from the traumatic events. The nightmares serve as an outlet to “protect survivors’ mental health” (Hartmann, 1995). Military trauma in Palestinian children did not negatively affect mental health; they had dreams with mixtures of feelings and bizarre plots, while there was high psychological stress in children with common dreams (Punamaki, 1998). Children whose dreams related to their traumatic events adjusted better than children without that relationship (Barrett, 1996). Also, since bizarre dreams are easily remembered (Punamaki, 1997; Schredl, Kleinferchner, & Gell, 1996), children living in traumatic conditions remember their dreams. Traumatic events had an effect on earlier developmental stages and included negative feelings. Severe trauma can cause children to regress and lose cognitive and emotional skills (Smith et al., 2002).

Along with the fear from exams, fear from war trauma is stress in reality. The increase in nightmares could be due to the increase in the need to reduce stress, while the decrease in nightmares from watching violent films is due to the actual watching as the stress reliever. Revonsuo (2000) developed the Threat Simulation Theory of dreaming (TST) that states that people’s dreams replicate threatening events and that those events activate the threat simulation system. Dreams come from the long-term memory, which is traced from the degree of negative emotions and most recently encoded or activated memory trace. The TST failed to explain responses to threats in dreams of children exposed to war trauma. Their dreams self-reacted to only one-third of the threats.

Children exposed to trauma had longer, more frequent, severe, and aggressive dreams than children unexposed and out of those dreams, they had more threatening ones. The children were most often the ones most threatened, followed by their loved ones, strangers, and then their homes. The children who suffered from trauma had dreams that self-reacted more from life-threatening events than any other threats, while normal children had no difference in self-reaction (Valli et al., 2006). Seligman’s (1980) learned helplessness theory explains why traumatized children reacted to threats as frequently as the non-traumatized children; in real life, they learned that efforts to fix the situation were futile. The non-traumatized children did not learn from real life experiences and reacted to try and resolve the situation

Hartmann (1995) described dreaming as a type of homeostasis, a process by which these children can return to a balanced center mentally. Dreaming is such an outlet to rid the negative emotions and wake up to a positive reality, serving as a mood regulation process (Punamaki, 1999; Cartwright, Luten et al., 1998; Kramer, 1993). Without such dreaming, a child will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (Breslau, 1998).

Innate causes

Innate factors also have an effect on nightmares. Ability to recall dreams has also been a factor in the existence of nightmares. If children cannot remember their dreams, then they will tell researchers and psychologists that they did not have nightmares the night before. Girls have a higher level of dream recall in comparison to boys; however, they may have not actually had more nightmares than the boys; they maybe have only recalled more. Innate factors that may influence the prominence of nightmares in children include mental deficiencies, age, and gender.

Mental deficiencies

Participants of another study were six- to twelve-year-old children admitted to the Allentown State Hospital in Pennsylvania for people who have mental deficiencies. The children had dreams of two categories: emotional or devoid of emotion, indeterminate emotion. On the fourth day, only one dream with emotional coloring was reported. The average amount of emotional dreams during the first three days was approximately twelve and for the fifth to seventh, there were around fifteen instances of emotional coloring. The fourth day’s events consisted of watching a movie and sleeping an hour later than on average nights. On the ninth day, they saw a play and also had an increase in emotional coloring (Berrien, 1935). This increase in emotional coloring could be due to the fact that their increase in activities resulted in a higher exposure to daylight which could influence depth of sleep, declining the frequency of dream activity.

Berrien (1935) took count of emotions and actions during their sleep. The five most frequent emotions included pleasure, commanding, fear, anger, and resent in order of frequency. The most recurring actions the children exhibited during the night were mumbling, and walking or talking. He also recorded dreams hourly and found that it differed from a study he found of college students who dream more at the beginning and end of their sleep, with less frequency in the third hour, while his findings in children shows a gradual decline in dreaming as time progresses. This difference might be the result of innate tendencies; the mental deficiencies and problems could be causing the time lapses in the children’s dreaming. There is an overall trend in dreaming as morning approaches and both IQ and age have a slight positive influence on the frequency of dreams.


Older children, in their teenage years, had pleasant dreams after watching TV; and Computer games caused 10% of nightmares in boys, twice as much as in girls who had only 5%. Boys watch significantly more TV than girls do in Sweden possibly because they are targeted more by television programs. First-year students had TV-related nightmares occur most often; although there is no distinction between boys and girls regarding nightmares. Boys also play more video games than girls do in both years; first-year girls play video games twice as often as boys do. Interestingly enough, first-year boys have both more nightmares and pleasant dreams than the other three age groups after playing video games and after watching TV. TV and video games caused a significant amount more pleasant dreams than nightmares in all age groups. Ignoring age, TV has a stronger effect on dreams in general disregarding whether it was a nightmare or a pleasant dream. (Van den Bulck, 2004)

Even though older children and children of older parents fell asleep later and mostly woke up earlier than their counterparts, sleep quality remained the same. Sleep schedule is best estimated with the age of children and their parents and sleep quality was measured with the parents’ education and family stress. (Sadeh, Raviv & Gruber, 2000)

Foulkes (1982) found in dreams of children ages 3 to 15 years that developmental changes in their dreams imitated their actual emotional and cognitive changes. Children of median age had adult-like dreaming and older children’s dreams’ differences were from lifestyle differences. Since children are still developing during preteen years, dream content is changing at the same time (Foulkes, 1982, 1999; Foulkes et al., 1990; Strauch, 2005; Strauch & Lederbogen, 1999) until it stabilizes after late adolescence (Domhoff, 1996). Foulkes’ (1982) study of children showed that it was only around that age that their dreams began to have dreams on a higher intellectual level as adults.

With age, children report longer dreams that involve more emotions and thinking (Foulkes, 1999; Punamaki, 1998). Older children had more bizarre dreams. Age might not directly influence the prominence of nightmares. Children of different ages are treated differently by each other and by adults. They feel different levels of responsibilities and put tasks in different orders of importance.


Males predominate in men’s dreams, while males and females appear equally in women’s dreams (Strauch and Lederbogen 1999; Domhoff, 1996; Hall & Van de Castle, 1966). Avila-White, Schneider, and Domhoff (1999) conducted a study with twelve and thirteen year-olds and found that boys’ dreams differed from girls’ in the same ways men’s dreams differed from women’s in Hall and Van de Castle’s (1966) study with young adults; girls’ dreams contained an equal proportion of male and female characters in their dream as in women’s dreams, and boys had an excess of male characters like in men’s dreams. The male/female character ratio increased with age in girls; the seventeen- and eighteen-year-old girls had a higher male/female ratio than the younger groups (Oberst, Charles, & Chamarro, 2005). The children in both Crugnola et al. (2008), and Giudici’s (2008) and Saline’s (1999) studies also show that the most significant differences between men and women are similar to those found in preadolescents, like aggressive/friendly interactions and male/female percentage.

Males are more likely to report physical aggression in dreams (Oberst, Charles, & Chamarro, 2005; Hall, et al, 1982), while women are more often victims of aggression (Saline, 1999; Domhoff, 1996) and have more introspective aggression, depression, and solution-seeking (Punamaki et al, 2005; Schredl, Sahin, & Schafer, 1998). Children encounter more aggression, express more aggression, and come across more hardship than adults in their dreams (Hall and Domhoff, 1963; Domhoff, 1996). The youngest boys had a higher level of frequency and severity of receiving aggression in their dreams (Oberst, Charles, & Chamarro, 2005). Strauch and Lederbogen (1999) found children to be victims in their dreams, while in waking life, they are the aggressors. Vulnerability, dependency, and fear of aggression could account for younger children having more aggression in their dreams than in those of older children, especially for young boys, who tend have more exposure to aggression than girls. More aggressive exposure, specifically in preadolescent boys, leads to more aggressive content in dreams (Achenbach & Rescorla, 2007). The children with aggressive personalities were more prone to having aggressive personalities in their dreams, and children with unaggressive personalities had unaggressive personalities in their dreams.

Also, women who do not work and stay at home have more dreams fitting the pattern for females, while women who work have dreams that follow a male pattern (Lortie-Lussier et al., 1992; Lortie-Lussier, Schwab, & De Koninck, 1985). Dream content of males and females imitate the pattern of the social roles they have (Schredl, Sahin, & Schafer, 1998).

Foulkes (1982) studied positive social interactions among teenagers and found less negativity in their dreams. Avila-White, Schneider, and Domhoff’s (1999) teenagers in study had more aggression than Hall and Van de Castle’s (1966) young adults; girls had a higher friendliness per character than did the women, while boys had lower friendliness per character than men. Boys have more aggressive interactions than girls (Crugnola et al., 2008).

Nightmare frequency was significantly higher in girls than in boys, a finding explained by girls’ heightened dream recall frequency (Schredl et al., 2008). The tone of TV watched was not related to the emotional tone of the following night’s dream; however, negative evening mood caused emotional dream to be negative, more pronounced in girls than in boys. Six- to eight-year-old boys could recall dreams better than the ten to twelve year old boys (Foulkes et al., 1967).

The discrepancy in nightmare frequency, female/male ratio, presence of aggressive interactions, etc. could be a result of environmental factors. People put different pressures on girls as opposed to on boys; they set different expectations for each.


The studies used were done with small sample populations and could probably have been expanded on with populations of other samples. Also, some studies had multiple dependent variables, and the innate causes like gender and age had a causal relationship with the increase or decrease of nightmares. A single study determined that age, TV, and gender are all factors that caused a change in nightmares, making it difficult to see which is the initial cause.

The innate factors seem to be caused by the sociocultural factors. Boys are exposed to more aggression and in turn have more aggression in their dreams because the way their parents treat them or what their teachers and peers expect of them. Girls have more depression because what society imposes on them. They fear becoming ugly, fat, or unwanted; therefore, these factors are incorporated in their nightmares; they face more emotional aggression than actual physical aggression. Age might have an influence based on the fact that older children may watch scarier TV shows or movies and younger children in normal cases fear losing their parents, their main caretakers. Innate factors for nightmares are less innate than they seem as they are caused by the children’s environment.

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