From The Times
June 9, 2009
How to understand your children's dreams
Children's dreams — and their nightmares — can tell you how your child is coping emotionally at home and at school
Dr Pam Spurr
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 4 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 to yield 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 productions in which 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.
Some of the examples of common symbols in the dreams of children aged 4 to 11 are common to adult dreams too.
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 thoughts and feelings.
As with the adult mind, 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 the psyche. Exploring your child's dreamscapes reveal some of the things percolating deep in their mind of which even they are not aware. 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 — the unconscious mind is 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 8 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 of 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 crashing waves were a dream symbol of how "enveloped" Mark felt about life at home. 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 marks 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 is not always possible to understand the symbols 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 — not just when they brings 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.
Your Child's Dreams: A Parent and Child Workbook by Pam Spurr is published by Connections at £ 7.99.
To order it for £ 7.59 inc p&p call 0845 2712134 or visit timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst