Have you ever wondered what your child’s good and bad dreams mean? Well did you know that when we go to sleep at night, parts of our minds stay up long after bedtime, working through our deepest wishes and conflicts. Dreams are core to this process and our kids experience this too, although with some important differences. Dreams begin in our minds at a very young age, as early as in the first year of life. Around the age of two or three children are able to recall and describe their dreams in more detail. As we grow, these dreams become more and more complex with more varied content and longer, more entangled storylines, but the core complexities remain the same. Adolescence is a time when dreams become intensified as the mind tries to manage the major changes happening on all fronts. Here are some ways to understand dreams and get a little closer to understanding what takes over our minds after dark.
What are dreams?
In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) Sigmund Freud described how dreams are “The Guardians of Sleep.” Why? Because when we sleep, we engage with our deepest desires and conflicts. And like it or not, there are some things we would absolutely hate to know we wanted (like wanting to steal daddy from mommy or how much hatred we feel for not getting our way). So in order to protect ourselves from knowing such ‘horrors’, the mind codes these desires into dreams made up of wild and wondrous stories which feel fantastical and confusing. The more confusing the dream, the further the true meaning is kept away from the dreamer, the dream can then be enjoyed, and the sounder our sleep remains. In this way, dreams protect the dreamer from realising what their true wish actually is, which prevents us from waking up and interrupting the fantasy. This is why dreams “guard” sleep.
What is different about a kid’s dreams?
Children’s dreams are often far simpler and shorter than adult’s dreams. They are closer to the source of our worries and may deal with issues around rivalry for a parent’s attention, social conflicts, concerns about control, worries about good and badness and conflict around big feelings (to name a few). Children may wake from bad dreams and come to you for help because they are not as able to distinguish between reality and fantasy and in that moment it feels incredibly real. In these times it is very helpful to let your child know that the ‘movie’ they watched in their mind is not real, that they are safe and that you love them no matter what they were dreaming about. This validates that no matter what they think and feel, you love them anyway and they will be better poised to value their own thoughts and feelings as well.
Some common dream themes in kids (and adult) dreams
- Falling: This is a scary one and may be linked to feeling out of control
- Animals: The trait of the animal often stands in for a feeling; like a wild animal with big teeth and which makes loud sounds, could stand in for a big scary feeling inside. A small soft animal may stand in for a more timid vulnerable part of the child.
- Being chased: This could represent a feeling or idea that the dreamer is running away from.
- Being left alone: This might signal that the dreamer is about to move into a new milestone and feels insecure about it.
The interesting thing about dreams is that every single element in the dream belongs to the dreamer and is a part of the person who is dreaming it. Meaning that every element holds deep meaning about how they feel about the thing they are working through. So for example, if your child dreams that they are ‘walking a tiger on a leash’: In that scenario they are the child, and the tiger and the leash in the dream. A possible meaning to this scenario is that the child may not want to think about their anger which feels scary and ferocious (like a tiger) and so the child has coded the feeling as a tiger and put it on a leash so as to control the anger and be the boss of the feeling in fantasy. All this happens unconsciously and automatically and is part of the magical dreaming process.
The bottom line
The important thing to remember with dreams is that there is no universal dictionary and every dreamer, young and old, has their own unique set of associations and meaning to every element in their dreams. The only way to really understand the meaning of the dream is to explore that meaning with the person who has dreamed it. That’s not to say that this is always doable or necessary, because dreams are also immensely private. But it will always help the dreamer to validate that their dreams matter and the feelings captured in their dreams matter profoundly. We are all born with this powerful resource and should consider it a valuable ally, no matter how big or small we are. Dreams are an incredible way for our minds to process, play, explore and exercise our imaginations creatively. In this way, dreams are another playground that we all get to play in long after our bodies have gone to sleep.