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bad dream

Is Your Child Having Sleep Problems? Ask About This

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Kate Fogarty, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

When I was in elementary school, I had one very strict teacher whom we all found rather frightening. While some of my former classmates look back on him now with great affection, I’m not sure I feel quite the same. In fact, at the time, my worries about him were so intense that I had nightmares where he played the starring role!

Stress and Sleep Issues: Connected

Parents whose children are having a lot of bad dreams may occasionally stop to wonder if something is going on to upset their son or daughter. Indeed, it’s fairly well known that stress and trauma in our waking lives can lead to nightmares while we sleep. But now, new research suggests a connection not just between nightmares and general daytime stress, but between childhood sleep disturbances and a problem many parents are concerned about: bullying.

Bullying at Age 8-10: Sleep Disturbances Later On

In this study, about 7000 children were asked whether they were experiencing or perpetrating any bullying at the ages of 8 and 10. Later, when they were around 12 years old, they reported whether they’d recently experienced any nightmares, sleepwalking, or night terrors, which occur when sleeping people seem awake and appear very frightened.

Overall, about 35% of the 12-year-olds said they’d had one of these sleep problems at least once in the last 6 months, with nightmares being by far the most common. But what was more interesting was that children who’d reported being bullied at ages 8 and 10 were significantly more likely to report these sleep issues. In fact, those who’d been bullied the most in elementary school (having this problem on a regular basis) reported the highest levels of all types of sleep disturbances.

The connection persisted even after researchers took factors like pre-existing sleep problems, depression, anxiety, emotional and behavioral issues, and family problems (such as financial difficulties and child abuse) into account. Meanwhile, children who reported that they bullied others showed few tendencies towards sleep problems.

If There Are Sleep Issues: Ask

When we think about it, it’s not surprising that being bullied during the day could lead to sleep disturbances at night. Stress disturbs the sleep process, including hormonal functions that support healthy rest. Yet parents whose children experience sleep problems, especially quirky behaviors like sleepwalking, may not think to wonder about bullying as a possible cause. Knowing the connection between bullying and sleep disorders can help parents, teachers and counselors detect bullying and address these stresses and problems with their children. This way, the harmful effects of bullying can be minimized.

Parents should also keep in mind that persistent sleep issues can really disturb children’s rest. If your child is having frequent problems with nightmares, night terrors, or sleepwalking, or if you’re worried that these incidents present a danger to him or her, speak with your pediatrician.

(Photo credit: surprised, the kid chameleon tried red by woodleywonderworks. CC BY 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading

Sleep Terrors–from the Mayo Clinic

Sleepwalking–from the Mayo Clinic

Nightmares— from KidsHealth

How Parents and Agents Can Address Bullying with Youth–from UF-IFAS

Stop Bullying–from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services


Wolke, D., & Lereya, S. T. (2014). Bullying and parasomnias: A longitudinal cohort study. Pediatrics, 134 (4), 1-9.