Childhood dreams can be complicated and scary. Children are learning what their world is all about, and they do not have the power to take care of themselves or protect themselves from threatening situations or people. This fact often shows up in dreams. In fact, studies indicate that children have nightmares far more than adults do, and the fact that children cannot take care of themselves or create their own destiny is certainly a major part of this. Further complicating the issue for parents is the fact that children only rarely dream about the actual people or issues causing them stress, and it can be very difficult to determine what the stress is in the child’s life when, say, the nightmare is about a big green monster chasing the child.
Studies indicate that nightmares peak at about 3-6 years of age, and that about half of children this age have nightmares. Of course, this is also the age at which the child is beginning to go to school and is bombarded with new responsibilities and expectations. In addition, children at this age are often given more freedom and responsibility to play outside, and begin to get to know more people than previously. This vastly increases the scope of things that children can be afraid of, and therefore have dreams and nightmares about. Furthermore, in terms of brain development, a child’s imagination is extremely vivid during this time and children move further and further into imaginative thinking, laying the groundwork for abstract thought. This, too, is a factor in children’s dreams and nightmares.
Common Dreams for Children
Some common dream and nightmare themes for children include scary monsters, people, and events and situations such as being paralyzed, chased, trapped, or naked. Common stressors that lead to nightmares include a new baby in the family, moving, starting school or changing schools, a divorce or remarriage, or a person antagonizing the child – bullies at school, a grumpy neighbor, or even a parent who commonly snaps or yells at the child. Dreams of being chased, of hiding, and of being found in hiding spots indicate a feeling that the child is not safe. Perhaps the home life is stressful, or maybe the child feels unable to talk to his or her parents about the feelings which are such a burden on a little young person.
If your child is experiencing these sorts of dreams, one of the most effective remedies is simply to create a safe place for the child. Encourage him to talk, and do not judge or comment on the things he says. Simply accept him for who he is, and let him know that you are a safe person in whom he can trust. If the home is stressful and chaotic, try instituting a peaceful time of day for the child. Turn off the TV and play a board game together, read a story, or talk about his day. Listen and be present. It is not possible to make a child’s entire life safe and secure from any stressors or dangers, nor would it be good for the child if we did so. However, it is important for a child to have a safe base from which to explore the world, and where he can go when the dangers become too overwhelming, and providing this will help to reduce many childhood nightmares.
Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children
Nightmares occur when the child is in REM sleep, and as such is likely to be completely still. You will probably have no idea your child is having a nightmare until the child wakes and cries or comfort, even if you are sitting awake right next to the bed. Some people cry during nightmares, with tears streaming from their eyes, but do not indicate that they are having a nightmare in any other way. Night terrors, on the other hand, are what we often think of as nightmares when we observe children having them. These happen during deep sleep (stages 3 and 4), and not in REM sleep. During night terrors, children may thrash around and scream, or they may even get out of bed and run through the house, apparently terrified.
Night terrors can be scary for parents, as the child seems obviously to be in distress, and children who are having night terrors do not respond to comfort or even attempts to wake them up. If your child is having a night terror, do everything you can to keep the child safe, and wait for it to pass, as it will after a few minutes. Do not try to wake up your child, as they are not in conscious control of their actions and can become violent, hurting you or themselves. Night terrors do not have images associated with them in your child’s brain, and your child will not remember them the next day. Nightmares, on the other hand, are often able to be remembered. Night terrors are simply a fear reaction that occurs when transitioning between stages of sleep, often between deep sleep and REM. If your child has night terrors, try to address stressors in his or her life which may be causing the prevailing emotion of fear.
Not all children’s dreams are scary. Many dreams involve adventures and accomplishments, and reflect the child’s growth in confidence and ability. If your child has a dream in which they do something they are proud of, be excited for your child! This indicates a confidence that they can do good and important things and accomplish their goals. If your child has a dream about beating up a scary monster, that is even better, as it indicates that your child is gaining the tools to deal with the stressors and scary things in their life. Whether they are learning to stand up to bullies at school or understand their math homework, dreams about strength and self-efficacy indicate positive growth on the part of your child, and should be celebrated.