What’s the best way to talk with your child about his or her dreams or nightmares? Why does your child have vivid dreams or nightmares? How can you help your child to stop having nightmares? What can you learn about your child through understanding her dreams?
Note: This article is intended to give you some tips on children’s dreams and nightmares. For in-depth professional help in understanding your child’s unique nightmare and how to help her, you might like to book a consultation by phone to discuss your child’s nightmare.
You’ll find practical tips for helping your child at the end of this page, but here’s a little theory first:
What is a nightmare?
A nightmare is a dream in which you (or your child) feel intense fear. When you feel frightened in a dream your physical body goes into fear mode. Adrenalin is released into the bloodstream causing the usual fear response: raised heart rate, cold sweat and a feeling of being frozen to the spot and unable to move or shout out.
When your child experiences a nightmare he or she will wake up with all these symptoms. It is a normal and natural physiological response to fear. For the child, though, these body reactions leave her feeling that something really scary has actually happened.
She then needs your help in understanding that the dream itself wasn’t real, but the emotions connected with it, and her experience of the nightmare, were very real.
Children tend to believe dreams are real events. You might think the best thing to do is to reassure your child that her nightmare is “only a dream, nothing real”, and then try to settle her back to sleep, but it’s not. Unfortunately this approach, with the best intentions in the world, has the long-term effect of reducing a child’s dream recall as an adult. What you are really doing is saying, “Dreams are not important, so turn off the recall”. You are also giving the message to your child that her fears are unimportant and that fears should be dismissed or ignored rather than faced and dealt with.
As an adult you know that it is better to face your fears than to bury your head in the sand. You know that fears don’t go away, in fact they grow bigger and more worrying the more you try to ignore them. When you turn and face an issue that has been fearful for you your fear diminishes and you find solutions to the problem. You become more empowered to live a whole life rather than to hide from parts of it.
When you acknowledge your child’s fear after a nightmare and help her by following the practical steps below, what you are really doing is teaching your child, in a loving and supportive way, to face her fears. You are giving her a wonderful gift that will empower her throughout her childhood and adulthood.
Remember also that for your child her dream was a very real experience, especially emotionally, so being told that it was ‘only a dream’ is very confusing for her. She may hold back from sharing other emotional experiences with you in the future if she feels they may not be validated by you.
We all dream but not everyone has good recall of dreams. Many people who no longer remember their dreams were either told by their parents that their dreams were not valuable or were frightened by one too many nightmares into turning off their dream recall.
Dreaming is necessary for our physical and emotional well-being. If you allow someone to sleep but stop them from dreaming (which can be done in the laboratory) they suffer physically and emotionally after only 48 hours of dream deprivation. So, even if you manage to successfully stop your child remembering her dreams, they are still occurring.
You might think this is good – after all, she is getting good sleep and is no longer frightened during the night. But there are deeper implications.
Dreams are the result of our dreaming brain working to make sense of our daily experiences. Your child’s nightmare is part of her process of trying to make sense of her world.
When you can both talk about her dream – especially when you, the parent, understand a little more about what her dream means – you can help her to overcome her natural and normal fears around her everyday life experiences. By repressing dream recall you are both missing out on a wonderful opportunity for her to grow into her world with more ease and wisdom.
Practical steps for dealing with children’s dreams and nightmares
If your child wakes up frightened during or just after her nightmare, sit with her and hug her and then reassure her that everyone dreams ‘stories’ and that some dream stories are scarier than others just as some fairy stories, movies, or television shows are scarier than others. Remind her of her favourite stories (choose a couple of appropriate ones) where something frightening or challenging happens yet the story ends happily (the fear is overcome, the challenge met, the problem solved, resolution found). Tell her she’s very clever to create her dream story, even if it is a scary one, and that together you can make up the end of the story to give it a happy ending (in other words, involve her in changing the dream story). Tip: Don’t kill the monster – or anything – when you change the dream: transform it. For example, transform the monster into a playful puppy.
If she is very wakeful, ask her to describe her dream. Ask her lots of “how did you feel?” questions, such as “how did you feel when you saw the monster?” Empathise with her, “Oh, you must have been so frightened”. If she’s still wakeful, make up the new story with the happy ending. Tell her you know some good tricks to stop nightmare stories and some fun games to play in the morning. Tell her that she is safe to go back to sleep now.
If she doesn’t remember her dream, just let it be. But do take some time to think about what changes might be happening for her and what stresses she might be facing. These changes and stresses may be contributing to the fears that her nightmare is processing. See if you can ease the changes or stresses. Remember that dreams process the dreamer’s experiences of the last 1-2 days, so look for clues in what’s been going on in the 1-2 days before the dream.
In the morning – or as soon as you can – set aside some time to play those fun games.
This is what to do:
1. Help your child to draw her dream (or, for example, the monster in her dream, or the tidal wave, or the fire), or help her to paint her dream, to act it out in dress-up clothes or to use play dough or other art materials to express her dream. Make it a story telling time and make sure she knows that because you are there she is completely safe. Make it a bit like telling a fairy story. This helps her to share her dream with you, safely, while also seeing that dreams are like stories and play-acting – something familiar.
2. Next comes the important step and it is this: Help your child to work out a better ending for her dream. For example, you might suggest that the monster takes off his monster suit and turns into a good fairy who is ready to grant her next wish, or you might suggest she waves a magic wand at the tidal wave making it shrink into a little puddle, or you might suggest that she picks up a hose and puts out the fire very easily, saving the building or whatever was burning.
What you are doing here is helping your child to face her fear and use her natural powers to transform her fears. You are showing her that it is empowering to face your fears because we all have a wonderful ability to find solutions when we have the courage to face our fears.
3. The next thing to do is to help your child to draw, paint, act or play-dough the NEW dream – the one with the happy ending.
Practice the new story until she is clear and happy with it.
Tell her that if her dream ever comes again, she can change it in exactly the same way. Tell her this is very easy to do and go over the changed ending with her yet again. It IS actually very easy to do. As adults we find it more difficult to change the ending of a recurring nightmare because we don’t believe it can be that easy, but your child will take their new power for granted and be very likely to change the nightmare into a dream with a happy ending should it come up again.
Will it come up again? What are the chances?
It is likely that the dream with the **changed** ending will come up as your child’s dreaming mind will reflect the new processes she has learned. It’s a consolidation – a good sign. It is unlikely that the nightmare will repeat in its original form, but if it does, repeat the same steps, perhaps finding a simpler happy ending.
The next thing is for you, the parent, to begin to look at what your child’s nightmare or dream may mean. The more you can understand her dream, the more you can understand your child. You will also then be able to see what you can do to help your child grow through her fears, or see what you can do to help her cope with change and stress, or see what you can do to ease issues and circumstances that are affecting her.
The more you can make going to bed a peaceful and happy routine, the more likely your child will sleep well. Quiet time (a peaceful story, no screen time for a couple of hours before bed) and perhaps even wishing her happy dreams helps in making sleep – and dreams – a time to look forward to… for everyone!
Common childhood nightmares and dreams
Children’s dreams and nightmares are similar in theme to many adult ones, so you may recognise some of your own dream themes here. It seems no matter how old or young we are, we are all faced with similar challenges from time to time.
This is the most common childhood nightmare. Your child may dream of being chased by a monster, an animal, a person or something else, perhaps a strong wind or a household item such as a broom. In the dream your child runs away or hides but the thing keeps on chasing her.
Every dream is unique and the details in a person’s dream pinpoint their unique life situation, but the general meaning behind this kind of dream is the same. The child is running away from a fear or issue they would be better to face. In the dream the child never escapes – or, if she seems to escape, the monster reappears in a future dream, reinforcing no escape. As in life, the more you turn your back or run away from something you fear, the more it follows you. The solution is to identify the waking life situation that your child is finding difficult to confront and then help her to face that issue. The more you fail to address a fear or worry, the greater it becomes. Once you face it, it changes and a solution emerges – with your help.
So your task as the parent is to work out what the chasing thing in the dream represents in your child’s life. If it is an animal, for example, get a feel for how your child sees that kind of animal. If it is a giant bee, for example, she probably equates it to stinging so you might want to think about where, in her life, she might be frightened of someone’s stinging remarks. If it is a huge elephant she may see the elephant as capable of crushing her underfoot so you might want to think about where she feels belittled or where she fears being emotionally crushed.
TIDAL WAVE OR DROWNING
In this common nightmare your child is at the beach when suddenly a huge tidal wave or tsunami appears. It comes towards her and she tries to run and usually wakes up at that point.
A similar dream is one involving fear of drowning or being out of depth in water.
Water in dreams often represents emotions and feelings. The tidal wave dream often comes up when there’s a big emotional issue that your child is feeling swamped by and is trying to escape. In adult life we often try to cope with emotional issues by staying cool and calm and basically not acknowledging or addressing them. But you can’t suppress emotions forever and eventually they become inevitable tidal waves of emotion, threatening to overwhelm you.
If your child has this dream ask yourself how she is or isn’t handling emotional issues in her life. You might want to introduce more feeling words into life, such as “happy, sad, excited, disappointed, proud, hurt ..” and so on, mixing positive and negative emotions, teaching her the words she needs to be able to express herself as well as teaching her that it’s a good thing to be able to talk about feelings and emotions. What you are doing is helping her to address emotional issues by talking about them with you before they become huge tidal waves. You can empathise with her and help her to find solutions.
In this common nightmare your child loses something very dear to her and gets distressed because she cannot find it.
This dream comes up when your child is losing touch with something in her life, or afraid of losing what is familiar and comfortable as she takes new steps in the world, or feeling undervalued. The clue is in what is lost:
For example, if she loses her comfort blanket then you know straight away that she’s losing touch with a sense of comfort. There are changes in her life moving her towards independence or changes leaving her lacking the comfort she needs. If, for example, she loses something she values, it may well be her self-value – her self-esteem – that she feels she is losing. As you can see, the key is to work out what the lost thing represents to her and then you can work what she feels she is losing. I can help you with this if you find this difficult. The other details in the dream help here too.
Children often have very simple but abstract dreams, more like a single picture with an associated feeling than a story line. Common ones include, for example, a picture of an enclosed space and a feeling of being crushed or suffocated, or a picture of swirling colours and a feeling of being unsteady or unstable. These are quite easy for you, as an adult, to interpret, as they are really giving you a snapshot picture of how your child is feeling.
Your children’s dreams or nightmares
Your child’s nightmare may be quite different from the examples I have given, but they provide clues about how to look at your child’s dreams. Every dream is unique and it is the extra details in your child’s dream that help pinpoint what her dream means to her personally.
This article is intended to give you some tips on children’s dreams and nightmares. For in-depth professional help in understanding your child’s unique nightmare and how to help her, you might like to book a consultation by phone to discuss your child’s nightmare.