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How to interpret your child’s bad dreams

Most children have bad dreams, but most parents are at a loss to understand why.

Parents have had to resort to reassuring children that their dreams are not “real,” even going so far as to show children that there is nothing under the bed or in the closet. But because dreams are real to children, this attempt at soothing doesn’t work and children often return to their parents’ room the next night with another bad dream.

The mystery of bad dreams is solved once parents and children understand that children are the authors of their dreams

Children have bad dreams because they are struggling with unfinished emotional business from the previous day.

For example, a child might dream that he is being punished by having his favourite dessert taken away. If the child’s parents ask if something had upset him the day before, he might remember that he had been angry at his mother for paying so much attention to his baby sister and had thought, “I wish my baby sister would go away!”. His parents can then show him the connection between his anger at his mother and sister and his feeling that he should be punished for that anger, which resulted in the bad dream.

Once his parents reassure the child that all children feel angry at family members sometimes and that this is normal, then he is able to go back to bed feeling happy and comforted.

Children’s bad dreams change somewhat as they get older because the more mature the child, the more elaborate the dream needs to be to serve the purpose of disguising the painful feelings that are causing it. For example, a young child might have a straightforward dream that he is locked out of his house when a cold forces him to miss a party he had wanted to attend. An older child who had been ill might create a less obvious dream of getting lost in a maze.

Regardless of the age of the child, bad dreams result from unresolved painful feelings such as anger, shame, or reactions to loss.

Tips for getting children back to sleep after a bad dream:

  • Start by giving children a comforting hug.
  • Explain to children that they are the authors of their bad dreams.
  • Help children connect upset feelings left over from the day before with the bad dream.
  • Don’t make light of the bad dream as not “real”. This is not helpful because dreams are very real to children.
  • Showing children how to make sense of their dreams empowers them and dissipates their feelings of helplessness, which makes it possible for them to go back to sleep feeling comforted and comfortable.

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