“I’m soooo scared! There are monsters under my bed! They might eat me!
It’s REALLY creepy!”
Most parents have faced such a heart-rending plea from their little one at some point and did their best to comfort and console. But many are uncertain whether or not their gentle assurance is the most beneficial response to help their child tame the demons of the night.
Just about everyone has nightmares at one time or another and they are not at all unusual in childhood particularly between ages three to seven. Children’s nightmares appear to be a part of normal development and do not generally signal unusual problems unless they are persistent and accompany daytime anxiety, depressed mood, eating difficulties or other symptoms and, in that case, some professional guidance would be useful. The same would be true in the case of persistent night terrors which plague a minority of children and are characterized by screaming, difficulty waking and sometimes sleep walking.
In contrast, nightmares are common and a normal part of childhood. By far the most frequent nightmare of young children is being threatened by an animal or monster – hungry wolves with sharp teeth, giant monsters or nagging ghosts. When the lights go out, fears that lurk beneath the surface can strike terror in a child’s heart stirring troublesome anxieties and even avoidance of bedtime.
If your child wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic take a moment to calm yourself first and then go to them and stay with your child until they are calmer. If your child is quite young – perhaps 3 or 4 – you may need to reassure them their experience was in fact a dream by saying something like “This was a dream. Everyone has dreams while sleeping.” At that age they may have difficulty understanding what a dream is so you could tell them that when we dream we are telling stories while sleeping.
The most important thing for an adult caregiver to keep in mind is not to dismiss a child’s nightmare. It is not “just a dream!” Nightmares can feel traumatic, particularly for children, because they’re experienced as actually real. A dream is in fact a very real experience. Our physical and emotional self experiences a dream as what’s actually happening in that moment so the monsters really ARE alive in the dream. In reaction, a child’s fight-or-flight response kicks into high alert to offer help in coping with the monster just as if she were being chased in waking life by a neighborhood bully. In fact, dreams can offer insightful messages about the everyday worries and stresses your child actually faces in their life. As a bonus, dreams also offer children important rehearsal time for coping with challenges in their waking life. In this way, dreams can play a key role in your child’s development and growth.
Our physical and emotional self experiences a dream as what’s really happening in that moment so the monsters really ARE alive in the dream.
Parents often ask should I interpret my child’s dream? Some dream experts don’t focus on interpretation, either with adults or children. Although dreams can offer parents valuable insights into their child’s concerns, interpretations offer children very little useful information. Instead it can be more helpful to take the attitude that discovering a dream, rather than interpreting it, offers a child opportunities to learn creative problem solving and to believe more in their own capabilities. Dream experts Alan Siegel, PhD and Kelly Bulkeley, PhD are the authors of DreamCatching: Every Parent’s Guide to Understanding and Exploring Children’s Dreams and Nightmares. As a psychologist, Alan has this to say about interpreting a child’s dreams: “Parents can breathe easy. You don’t have to interpret the dream. And you don’t need a dream dictionary. In fact, it is better to explore the dream through art or story-telling.”
NIGHTMARE & DREAM DISCOVERY WITH YOUR CHILD
WELCOME THE DREAM WITH CURIOSITY
Dreams are vivid expressions of your child’s heart. Sharing these intimate revelations encourages emotional communication that nurtures family bonds. When kids share their dreams at breakfast or while driving to school, they are revealing their deepest concerns – challenges like problems at school, grief over losses, or perceptions of stress in their parent’s lives.
GIVE FULL ATTENTION AND SUPPORT FOR FEELINGS
Supportive conversations about dreams can model caring relationships and help a child learn to value, rather than fear, the inner life of feelings. So give comforting support by offering your full attention to your child and acknowledging their feelings and concerns. Encourage your child to express and learn to articulate their feelings by asking “how do you feel about that?”
Dreams are vivid expressions of your child’s heart
ENCOURAGE CREATIVE SELF EXPRESSION
It is empowering to consciously engage with dreams as the teller of the tale. After listening and offering emotional support, consider inviting your child to engage in creative play about their dream. Like an adult dreamer a child may want to keep a journal as a place for telling the stories of their dreams, for creating poems or drawings based on dreams or just to express their feelings about particular dream characters. For a child troubled with nightmares, creative self expression can offer a sense of emotional containment and safety.
Even if a child hasn’t shown an interest in keeping a journal, they will likely appreciate the invitation to explore a particular dream using paper and crayons, collage materials or clay. Children are less self-conscious than adults about expressing themselves creatively so they’re typically happy to engage in creative activities. As Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” It’s important that an adult witnessing a child’s expression of their dream does not focus on the artistic quality or process (“what a good job!”) but simply takes the role of interested observer while the child freely engages in self-expression about their dream.
In addition to journaling and drawing, if your child experiences nightmares invite them to explore options to re-story their dream tale. It is important to support the child in being the author of their own story so encourage them to take the lead in imagining a successful resolution. You might begin by asking “how would you like to resolve this challenge? What would you like to do next?”
By reenacting a dream, or the most powerful part of it, a child can become the artistic director of their dream drama and discover they can create a satisfying outcome to their nightmare.
In seeking a successful outcome for their nightmare, a child’s first response might be something like “I want to kill that giant bear with my magic sword!” Although we want children to generate their own ideas for success, by encouraging your child to consider various options she learns creative problem solving, conflict resolution skills and empathy. Support a child’s natural curiosity by encouraging them to dialogue with dream characters, especially those who seem threatening. A child might begin dialoguing with a dream character by asking “Who are you?” and “Why are you…(chasing me, for example)?” These questions can lead to asking “What do you want?” and “Why are you visiting me – do you have something to tell me or give me?”
Children enjoy reenacting their dreams by creating a Dream Theater. For nightmares, the primary goal is to overcome fear through creative play so some children might like a helper to assist them, especially with fear inducing tasks like exploring a dream’s scary forest or dark hallway. You can discover if your child wants a helper by simply asking “is there anyone you’d like to be your helper (a real person or fantasy figure)?”
It’s empowering to consciously engage with dreams as the teller of the tale
When casting characters for the dream theater, ask your child “who do you want to play this part and what do you want them to do or say now?” Initially a child might want a sibling, for example, to play the threatening monster or themselves in the dream, but more can be discovered if your child is encouraged to take a turn at trying various roles, including the monster.
For their dream play a child may decide a musical version is more fun and making up and singing songs is a such powerful way to remember and learn. They might want to create masks or other props for their dream theater. Depending on the age of the child, the parent or grandparent playing with them may want to begin the work of creating simple masks using poster board and then encourage the child to color the masks as they wish. The masks can then be worn if a string is attached to both sides (an alternative is to glue a ruler on the bottom of the mask to use as a handle).
Through reenacting a dream in their very own dream theater, a child may discover a scary dream character actually wants to offer help or is asking for help or simply wants to play. Rather than kill their pursuer, the child might transform their magic sword into a giant hot dog to feed a very hungry bear and make him their well-fed friend! Then the child experiences they can be the hero in their dreams just as they can be a hero in waking life.
A child’s dream life is an important reflection of their development and growth. Dreams mirror how a child makes a path for themselves amid the changes and challenges they face in life.
Exploring dreams gives parents insight into how their child is progressing on their path. When a child shares their dream, thank them for sharing it. What a gift!
As a bonus, dreams offer children important rehearsal time for new life phases and opportunities to engage their imagination to explore creative problem solving. Through dream sharing and creative play, children troubled by their dreams can evolve from victims in their nightmares to the master of ceremonies of their very own nighttime variety show.
For the audio version: MY DREAM LIFE AUDIO: KIDS’ DREAMS & NIGHTMARES
For more about kids and dreams – MY DREAM LIFE VIDEO: WHILE WE’RE ASLEEP
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The stunning artwork here has been generously shared with permission of the artist, Sarolta Ban, who lives in Budapest.
To enjoy more of Sarolta’s work:
Got your Dream Discovery Workbook? It’s a guided dream journal! Find out more here: DREAM DISCOVERY WORKBOOK: A GUIDED DREAM JOURNAL.
“SWEET DREAMS, DREAMERS!”
Dream Mentor & Dream Blog Author