Dreams and Nightmares: The Link Between Sleep and Mental Health in Young People


At some stage in our life every single one of us will have trouble sleeping. Sleeping is food for the soul, it nourishes, it keeps us alive, but it can also be the cause of our problems. 

While it can be upsetting to struggle with vivid dreams or nightmares, there are a variety of reasons why your teen might find dreams stressful. For young people, day to day life can be a struggle. Juggling school, friends, and making time for family is often challenging. This stress can also translate into the subconscious as strange and vivid dreams. However, by being able to differentiate between weird dreams and something more sinister, parents can begin to spot signs of mental health struggles in their teens.

Sleep in Teens

As children go through puberty they experience great shifts, not only in their day to day lives, but also in their sleep. The sleep of adolescents is different to the sleep of both children and adults. And yet, teens are often expected to replicate the sleeping patterns of siblings or parents.

The changes in the body of a young person means that their production of melatonin or the “sleep hormone” happens around 2 hours later than adults. This is the reason why teenagers famously stay up late and wake up even later. Therefore, while seemingly odd sleeping habits are nothing for parents to worry about, inability to sleep or anxieties around sleeping could be an issue.

Telling the Difference between Bad Dreams and Nightmares

Bad dreams and nightmares are often lumped under the same category, however the way in which they are formed is quite different. From a psychological perspective, bad dreams resolve themselves within a short period of time. This is because your brain uses bad dreams as a way of overcoming potential problems in real life. For teens and young people this could be the experience of a social faux-pas, a failed exam, or an angry telling off from a teacher. These hypothetical situations allow the brain to feel more at peace with potential risks or stresses.

On the other hand, chronic nightmares are repetitive, relentless and are associated with lower psychological well-being. Nightmares are more common among people with a history of trauma or abuse and so can indicate mental and emotional instability. If a person is experiencing nightmares it can be very overwhelming and impact many other areas of their lives. 

For teens – who often need more sleep than adults – these disturbances can be detrimental to their physical and emotional well-being. Nightmares can also be extremely confusing and leave young people with a lot of overwhelming feelings that are difficult to articulate. This can be particularly upsetting as night terrors are often perceived as a ‘child’s’ problem and therefore invalidated in teens and young people.

When To Know if There Is a Serious Problem

On occasion we all have nightmares, that does not mean there is anything particularly wrong. It just shows that life is stressful and our brains are aware of this. However, if your teen is experiencing routine, anxiety inducing nightmares that impact their sleeping pattern it might be a sign of something deeper. 

Nightmare disorder is an issue that affects around 2-8% of adults. It is often more difficult to diagnose in teens as they are shifting between children – for whom nightmares are common- and adults – for whom nightmares are more rare. Despite this there are some key signs of nightmare disorder in young people:

  • Major distress or impairment during the day
  • Problems with concentration or memory
  • An inability to stop thinking about images from dreams
  • Daytime sleepiness, fatigue or low energy
  • Problems functioning at work or school or in social situations
  • Behaviour problems related to bedtime or fear of the dark

If your teen is experiencing some of these issues related to nightmares, it might be time to take action.

Sleep Hygiene

We all know about hygiene in our day to day life – we brush our teeth, clean our bodies, and tidy our homes. However, most of us are unaware of how to maintain sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to the habits and practices that allow us a good night’s sleep. There are four key ways to maintain a healthy sleeping pattern.

  1. Get at least two hours of sunlight or bright light exposure
  2. Improve your bedroom
  3. Write down your dreams
  4. Reduce screen time – especially before bed

Each of these tips will allow the brain and body the relaxation and calmness that is so vital for a good night’s sleep. Teenagers who sit in dark messy rooms in front of video games are likely not going to get the rest needed by growing adolescents. 

While many parents are aware of the necessity for sleep hygiene, it can be difficult to control. A 2019 survey found that 68% of teens admitted to sleeping with their mobile phones at night time. However, only 12% of parents believed that their teens slept with a phone. This highlights the issues with sleep hygiene that can often lead to mental health struggles in young people.

What To Do if My Teen Is Struggling With Their Dreams

If sleep hygiene tips aren’t working, or it feels impossible to support young people with their sleeping patterns it might be necessary to seek professional help. Troubles with sleep and the coinciding struggles with memory, self esteem and anxiety, can be detrimental to the development of a young person. Bad sleeping habits can also be a sign of further mental health struggles as well as a catalyst for issues such as disordered eating and depression.

At the Wave we offer a variety of different support services for teens struggling with their mental health. A large part of what we do focuses on ensuring consistent routines and rest for our young people. Our experts are able to support young people with sleep and with the coinciding issues caused by lack of sleep.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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