Posttraumatic Nightmare Content in Children and its Relation to Posttraumatic Psychopathology

Kristen Nicole Gray, Lisa DeMarni Cromer


In adult populations, the more similar a posttraumatic nightmare is to a precipitating traumatic event, i.e., the replicativeness of the nightmare, the more distress one experiences, and the greater the frequency and severity of posttraumatic stress symptoms. Posttraumatic nightmare content in children and its relation to posttraumatic psychopathology remains unclear. Nightmare content and trauma-related themes within children’s posttraumatic nightmares remains relatively unexplored. Trauma-exposed children (n = 17) aged 5-17 years-old provided a posttraumatic nightmare narrative and answered questions about the replicativeness of their posttraumatic nightmare. Nightmare content and trauma-related themes were coded. Two one-way ANOVAs examined posttraumatic nightmare replicativeness to levels of posttraumatic stress and to nightmare distress. Findings showed that in children, posttraumatic nightmare replicativeness was associated with posttraumatic stress but not nightmare distress. The most common trauma-related themes in posttraumatic nightmares were safety and power/control. Girls’ nightmares more often contained pursuit and perceived threat whereas boys’ nightmares more often involved aggression. Our study is the first to examine trauma-related themes and qualitative aspects of posttraumatic nightmares in children with a variety of traumas. Future studies should examine gender differences and trauma-related themes, as these may have implications for our understanding and treatment of nightmares in children.


nightmare content; posttraumatic nightmares; children; trauma

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