Monsters Under My Bed
Kids' Nightmares & Dreams
Most parents have been awakened by a heart-rending plea from their little one during the night and did their best to comfort and console. But many are uncertain whether or not their gentle assurance is the only beneficial response to help their child tame the demons of the night.
Just about everyone has nightmares at one time or another and they are not at all unusual in childhood particularly between ages three to seven. Nightmares don't generally signal unusual problems unless they are persistent and accompany daytime anxiety, depressed mood, eating difficulties or other symptoms. In that case some professional guidance would be useful. The same would be true in the case of persistent night terrors which plague a minority of children and are characterized by screaming, difficulty waking and sometimes sleep walking.
In contrast, common nightmares appear to be a part of normal development as children gradually learn about the life challenges we all face. By far the most frequent nightmare of young children is being threatened by an animal or monster – hungry wolves with sharp teeth, giant monsters or nagging ghosts. When the lights go out, fears that lurk beneath the surface can strike terror in a child’s heart stirring troublesome anxieties and even avoidance of bedtime.
When a child wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic take a moment to calm yourself from being startled awake. Then go to them and stay until they are calmer. If your child is quite young – perhaps 3 or 4 – you may need to reassure them that their experience was in fact a dream by saying something like “That was a dream. Everyone has dreams while sleeping.” At that age they may have difficulty understanding what a dream is so you might tell them that sometimes we tell stories when we're asleep and those stories are called dreams.
The most important thing for an adult caregiver to keep in mind is not to just dismiss a child’s nightmare as “just a dream!” Nightmares can feel traumatic, particularly for children, because they’re experienced as actually real. A dream is in fact a very real experience. Our physical and emotional self experiences a dream as what’s actually happening in the moment so the monsters really ARE alive in the dream. In reaction, a child’s fight-or-flight response kicks into high alert to offer help in coping with the monster just as if she were being chased in waking life by a neighborhood bully. In fact, dreams can offer insightful messages about the everyday worries and stresses your child actually faces in their life. As a bonus, dreams also offer children important rehearsal time for coping with challenges in their waking life. In this way, dreams can play a key role in your child’s development and growth.
Because dreams can offer insightful messages some parents ask should I interpret my child's dream? Actually some dream experts don’t focus on interpretation even with adults. Although dreams can offer parents valuable insights into their child's concerns, interpretations offer children very little useful information. Instead it can be more helpful to take the attitude that discovering a dream, rather than interpreting it, can actually offer a child opportunities to learn creative problem solving and to believe more in their own capabilities. Dream experts Alan Siegel, PhD and Kelly Bulkeley, PhD are the authors of "DreamCatching: Every Parent's Guide to Understanding and Exploring Children's Dreams and Nightmares." As a psychologist, Alan has this to say about interpreting a child's dreams: “Parents can breathe easy. You don’t have to interpret the dream. And you don’t need a dream dictionary. In fact, it is better to explore the dream through art or story-telling." Here are some ways to share dream discovery with your child:
Nightmare & Dream Discovery with your Child
Welcome the Dream with Curiosity
Dreams are vivid expressions of your child’s heart. Sharing these intimate revelations encourages emotional communication that nurtures family bonds. When kids share their dreams at breakfast or while driving to school, they are revealing their deepest concerns – challenges like problems at school, grief over losses, or perceptions of stress in their parent’s lives. So invite your children to openly share their dreams.
Give Full Attention and Support for Feelings
Supportive conversations about dreams can model caring relationships and help a child learn to value, rather than fear, the inner life of feelings. So give comforting support by offering your full attention to your child and acknowledging their feelings and concerns. Encourage your child to express and learn to articulate their feelings by asking “how do you feel about that?”
Encourage Creative Self-Expression
It is empowering to consciously engage with dreams as the teller of the tale. After listening and offering emotional support, consider inviting your child to engage in creative play about their dream. Like an adult dreamer a child may want to keep a journal as a place for telling the stories of their dreams through drawings or words. For a child troubled with nightmares, creative self expression can offer a sense of emotional containment and safety.
Even if a child hasn’t shown an interest in keeping a journal, they will likely appreciate the invitation to explore a particular dream using paper and crayons, collage materials or clay. Children are less self-conscious than adults about expressing themselves creatively so they’re typically happy to engage in creative activities. As Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” It’s helpful if an adult witnessing a child’s expression of their dream doesn't focus on the artistic quality or process (“what a good job!”). Instead simply take the role of interested observer while the child freely engages in self-expression about their dream.
In addition to journaling and drawing, if a child experiences nightmares invite them to explore options to re-story their dream tale. It is important to support the child in being the author of their own story so encourage them to take the lead in imagining a successful resolution. You might begin by asking this about a problem presented in a dream “so what would you like to do next? How would you like to respond to this?"
By reenacting a dream, or the most powerful part of it, a child can become the artistic director of their dream drama and discover they can create a satisfying outcome to their nightmare.
In seeking a successful outcome for their nightmare, one's child’s first response was “I want to kill that giant bear with my laser sword!" Although we want to encourage a child to generate their own ideas for success, it is also helpful to invite them to consider various options so they learn creative problem solving, conflict resolution skills and empathy. Support a child’s natural curiosity by encouraging them to dialogue with dream characters, especially those who seem threatening. A child might begin dialoguing with a dream character by asking “Who are you?” and “Why are you…(chasing me, for example)?” These questions can lead to asking “What do you want?”and “Why are you visiting me – do you have something to tell me or give me?”
By reenacting a dream in their very own dream theater, a child may discover a scary dream character actually wants to offer help or is asking for help or simply wants to play. Rather than kill their pursuer, the child chased by a giant bear decided to transform their magic laser sword into a giant hot dog to feed the very hungry bear and make him her well-fed friend. By creating a new story from her nightmare this child experienced that she can be a hero in her dreams just as she can be a hero in waking life.
By reenacting a dream in their Dream Theater a child overcomes fear through creative play. Much can be discovered if your child is encouraged to take a turn at trying various roles, including the monster. But occasionally your child may want to engage in creative play with others. In casting characters for their dream theater, ask your child “who do you want to play this part? And what do you want them to do or say now?” Some children might like a helper to assist them, especially with scary tasks like exploring a dream’s dark forest or hallway. You can discover if your child wants a helper by simply asking “is there anyone you’d like to be your helper (a real person or fantasy figure) now?”
For their dream play a child may decide a musical version is more fun. Making up and singing songs is a such powerful way to remember and learn. Occasionally they might want to create masks or other props for their dream theater. Depending on the age of the child, the parent or grandparent playing with them may want to begin the work of creating simple masks using poster board and then encourage the child to color the masks as they wish. The masks can then be worn if a string is attached to both sides (an alternative is to glue a ruler on the bottom of the mask to use as a handle).
A child’s dream life is an important reflection of their development and growth. Dreams mirror how a child makes a path for themselves amid the various changes and challenges they face in life during different phases. Exploring dreams gives parents insight into how their child is progressing on their path. When a child shares their dream, thank them for sharing it. Consider it a gift.
As a bonus, dreams offer children important rehearsal time for new life phases and opportunities to engage their imagination to explore creative problem solving. Through dream sharing and creative play, children troubled by their dreams can evolve from victims in their nightmares to the master of ceremonies of their very own nighttime variety show.
More images by Sarolta Ban: Sarolta Ban
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