In Your Child's Dreams
Here I highlight the significance of your children's dream life
I clearly recall the moment I realised how important my children's dreams were in understanding their emotional and developmental state. It was one ordinary morning over a bowl of cereal when my son was four that he exclaimed, "Mum, I had the most exciting dream last night about a friendly dinosaur!" I asked him to describe his dream, admittedly paying only casual attention with the busy day ahead at the forefront of my mind.
My son described riding across an open plain on the back of a baby diplodocus. There was such exuberance in his tone and detail in his description that I was caught up in the excitement and touched by the expression on his little face. I'd recently done some dream interpretation seminars, albeit aimed at adults’ dreams, but until that moment I hadn't really thought about the potential significance of my children's dreams. It dawned on me that merely flicking through a dinosaur book from the library had touched my son’s inner creativity, sparking his dream. This was powerful stuff knowing that his young mind had absorbed these images and played with them yielding such a sense of adventure.
"Why don't we go to the Natural History Museum on Saturday?" I suggested picking up on his enthusiasm. That idea thrilled him and he couldn't wait to see the “friendly” dinosaurs as well as some scary ones. After that morning, his dreams of adventures and exploration fuelled many outings, drawings and projects. And it was the same when my daughter was old enough to recount her dreams - they stimulated all sorts of dressing-up costumes, artwork, and little plays where she roped-in friends to play various roles.
As time went on and I went through a difficult divorce from their father I became sensitive to any nightmarish images in their dreams. There were times when such images said more about how they felt than what they actually said during the day. These raised my awareness to being particularly responsive to their emotional needs.
This is a key point that I'd like to share with other parents: your children's dreams speak volumes about their inner life, not only about happy and confident feelings. Their dreamscapes, as I call them, abound with information about how they feel in the face of challenges, say, at school and with their peers, as well as anxieties they might harbour over events in the family and other issues. And of course as adults our dreams are bursting with symbolism. What's fascinating is that often the meaning of the symbol in an adult dream will have a similar meaning in a child's dream. Some of the examples of common symbols in children's dreams (see box) are common to adult dreams too.
In fact I believe your child's dreamscapes are so rich that I recommend listening to, and talking about, their dreams and nightmares as a creative parenting technique: a technique that provides you with unique and varied information about your child’s innermost th bursting oughts and feelings.
As with the adult mind, this is because when your child dreams the limbic system - the primitive brain system involved in our most powerful emotions - goes into overdrive. It throws up all sorts of images and feelings that have meaning, deeply-rooted in their psyche. Exploring your child's dreamscapes reveal some of the things percolating deep in their mind that they may not even be aware of. Because very often a child absorbs things occurring around them, processes them at this unconscious level, only for them to be revealed in dream images. It’s helpful to think of their sleeping mind as actually "awake" but at another level - that of the unconscious that’s all too willing to reveal things that in waking life your child may keep to themselves.
A perfect example can be found in Mark's nightmare. Mark was eight when he had a terrifying nightmare of being on a ship that resembled his home that felt "wrong". Waves started to envelop the ship and him. Every time he moved the waves came closer to completely swamping him. He felt helpless in the face that these waves despite the ship looking like his home. Mark had woken up and gone into his parents room for comfort.
A little probing found that his parents argued frequently and believed that he wasn't old enough to understand these rows or be affected by them. However these did overwhelm Mark and the enveloping waves were a dream symbol of how “enveloped” Mark felt about life at home right now. This came as a revelation to Mark's parents who acted to reassure him and made sure their discord was resolved.
Not only can you learn much about their emotional state, but your child's dreams and nightmares often tie-in with their developmental stage and how they’re coping with demands at school. Take Izzy, 10, who had a nightmare about her science teacher. In brief, she found herself in the science classroom without her school jumper and blazer. Suddenly the science teacher yelled at her to, "Come here!" He demanded to know where her school uniform was but she had no idea what to tell him. He chastised her repeatedly in front of the class, as all the class stared, and no one attempted to stop him.
When over breakfast Izzy mentioned her horrible nightmare, her mother naturally started questioning her about it. She knew Izzy always went to school with her uniform and wondered what was really at the bottom of this. She then discovered the science teacher had sometimes embarrassed and undermined Izzy in class by singling her out when she didn’t fully understand something. Her mother had been surprised by Izzy’s declining science grades that year. Now she had an explanation and could address this appropriately with Izzy. She also planned a meeting with the science teacher to point out how Izzy felt undermined in class.
Of course it's not always possible to understand the symbolism in your child's dreams. And certainly dream symbolism at times can be absurd, having been strung together by a child's sleeping mind from unrelated incidents. In such cases the symbols don't have any real meaning. However what’s crucial to realise as a parent is that the simple act of paying that special bit of attention to what your child says about their dreams, is enormously beneficial to your relationship.
Your child feels that you're interested in something generated from within them. Rather than feeling you're only interested when they bring home something from school that’s been marked, or they achieve a certain level in music or some other skill. Such external things that show progress, skill-development and achievement are important but shouldn't repeatedly take precedence over your child and their inner emotional life. Their dreams give you the chance to connect with them in a way that's rare and special, strengthening your parent-child bond.
Analysing Your Child's Dreams
Your child's dreamscapes can be very complicated. Because of this individual images within their dreams can serve as a great starting point for understanding their meaning. I fully explain my system of interpretation techniques in my book and how it's important to bear in mind that your child’s unique dream may be influenced by a specific context. Therefore the following common symbols are only a loose guide to go by.
Common Symbols in Positive Dreams –
Here are six of the most common symbols signifying positive feelings. Not only do such dream images give your child a sense of happiness but they can also indicate general levels of confidence and well-being. Exploring them can give you insight into what your child is feeling good about as well as being a springboard for creative play.
* Flying or having other extraordinary powers - images around these themes symbolise your child’s going through a positive period of personal/emotional growth.
* Discovering something like a buried treasure, special implement, or exotic item - dream symbols like these show that your child’s just learned something new that they’re pleased about like a skill or are enjoying investigating/doing something new in waking life.
* Talking animals or family pets that act like companions - dreams that contain such symbols demonstrate that your child feels very attached to and gets comfort from a pet. Or if it's not a pet but still a happy experience with, e.g., a talking animal, it symbolises a positive connection to nature.
* Scaling a mountain or a big wall with a positive and happy feeling - your child’s excelling at something, perhaps at school, symbolised by these dream images. They’re rising to the challenge symbolising growing confidence.
* Confidently doing something in front of a classroom or peer group - dream images where your child sings, speaks, or shows something to their class or peer group, accompanied by happy feelings, shows a very positive adjustment to that group.
* Meeting their favourite sports or pop star - dream images where they get to meet someone famous that they admire symbolises true wish fulfilment. Wish fulfilment is a very straightforward emotional state where something they’d love to have happen occurs in their dream.
Common Symbols in Nightmares -
Here are six of the most common symbols signifying unhappy or anxious feelings. Gentle probing of such images will give you important details like whether your child freezes in the face of these threatening images, runs from them, or face them down. These in turn indicate how overwhelmed your child feels, or how prepared they feel to face things that worry them. Always use worrying dream symbolism or nightmarish images, that your child reports, as one piece in the puzzle of trying to work out what may be troubling them. It can be starting point for open-ended questions around the subject matter of the symbols.
* Wild animals on the loose - lions, tigers, wolves, etc., that roam around unfettered usually signify a specific anxiety provoking situation. It may be the fear of a teacher or a bully and this fear takes on the form of a wild animal.
* Monsters, ghosts and ghouls - unlike nightmares of wild animals symbolising specific worries, images of monsters and ghosts tend to symbolise generalised anxieties. Generalised anxieties can take the form shyness, timidity, and clinginess. And like these nightmare images are hard for a child to describe.
* Raging fire or volcano - these symbolise an explosive sense of fear and often represent a new and frightening situation a child’s been put into.
* Being taunted by other children - such images can symbolise actual bullying that your child’s experiencing or a sense that somehow they don't fit in.
* Falling off a high wall, from a building or a cliff - these images can symbolise a sense that your child feels unsupported at home over something they feel anxious about.
* Getting lost in a jungle, wilderness, or other unknown territory - when a child has a nightmare containing such an unknown image it often symbolises the sense that they’re completely lost with a situation. Often such nightmare images aren't as frightening as the above but are still unpleasant, often relating to things like skill-development and academic achievement.
Check out my two dream books in the book section
Published in The Times