Articles Children's Dreams

In my experience with children, primarily my own three, I’ve observed that children’s dreams can often cause more upset and be more disturbing to them than for adults. According to Dr Hartman (Welles,1986) the reason for this is that children feel more vulnerable and helpless and consequently have more fears.

A recent article, published in the ‘Journal of Clinical Child Psychology’, investigated anxiety symptoms in normal school children 4 to 12 years of age. A regular primary school participated in the research consisting of 190 children (92 boys, 98 girls) The percentages of children reporting fears, worries, and scary dreams ranged from 67.4% to 80.5%, respectively, indicating that these anxiety symptoms are quite common among children.

Inspection of the developmental pattern of these phenomena revealed that fears and scary dreams were common among 4 to 6 year olds, became even more prominent in 7 to 9 year olds and then decreased in frequency in 10 to 12 year olds.

The developmental course of worry deviated from this pattern. This phenomenon was clearly more prevalent in older children (i.e., 7 to 12 year olds) than in younger children. Furthermore, although the frequency of certain types of fears, worries and dreams were found to change across age groups (e.g. the prevalence of fears and scary dreams pertaining to imaginary creatures decreased with age, whereas worry about test performance increased with age), the top intense fears, worries and scary dreams remained relatively unchanged across age levels.

As I took note of my own children’s dreams, I found their dreams were commonly associated with current concerns and daily pressures. The dreams likely resulted from the stress of schoolwork, rejection from friends, peer pressure or feelings of being unable to cope.

When my eldest child was eight she told me about a dream where a dark figure was outside the kitchen trying to reach through the window to get her.

At that time, she was having a difficult time at school. There was another girl who was constantly swearing and this was really getting to my daughter. I explained the dream was a mirror of what was taking place at school.

“The dark figure in your dream, who is outside the kitchen, is the girl from school who is outside the influence of your life. Her actions are getting to you.”

Dream content has been investigated from a developmental perspective (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966; Foulkes, 1971, 1982; Turpin, 1976). Children’s dreams have often been found to be a realistic representation of their lives—their dreams being a follow-up from their waking hours and not a discontinuous experience. (Webb & Cartwright, 1978) It has been acknowledged that dreams change according to age. Children’s dreams reflect the interaction of drives and ego development. They represent the most pressing concerns and tasks for children at the different stages of growth. In dreams, children give symbolic or metaphoric expression to their developmental struggles. (Ablon & Mack, 1980; Mahon, 1992; Greenberg & Pearlman, 1978)

When my second daughter was seven or eight, she went through a period of insecurity – not uncommon at that age.  She had the following dream which reflected her feelings: Overwhelmed, uncertain about herself and unsure about her relationship with her siblings.

Early one morning she climbed into our bed and nestled herself between her mother and I. She began to share her dream.

She dreamed about a house that was half built on land and half over the ocean. Whales were nudging themselves against the home. In her dream she felt her brother and sister didn’t like her house. Her mother and I were both in her dream commenting on how nice her house was.

I explained to her that the house represented her life; half of her felt stable (built on land) and the other half felt unsteady (build over the ocean). Her feeling of being overcome with insecurity was reflected in the symbol of the whales nudging against the house, unsettling it. The dream revealed how she felt that her brother and sister disliked her (the house). They were teasing her at the time, as children do. However, mum and dad liked what they saw and valued the house (her life) greatly.

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I asked her: “What do you think? Is Dad right? Is this dream showing how you really feel about your life?” A little shy, she didn’t say a word. With tears filling her eyes she nodded in affirmation.

As children grow into early adolescence, the body changes, personal anatomy grows, peer pressure is particularly important, while the relationship with parents is reconsidered and their authority reduced.

In the case where a child should dream the death of parents, it is likely the dream is saying the child is becoming less dependent on their mother and father.

I remember speaking to a teenager who was disturbed by a dream wherein his mother was bottle feeding him breast milk. As we talked, it emerged that this young person relied too much on drawing emotional strength and direction from his parents. It seemed it was time to start discovering their own decision-making ability and personal conviction.

In writing this, I would like to reassure readers that I am not promoting teenage rebellion or independence. I strongly believe in the necessity of wise counsel from parents. At the same time, as in the case of this teenager’s dream, there are parents who find it difficult to let their children grow in responsibility. There are times when the relationship can be smothering and the child struggles to learn how to make decisions and face consequences of those decisions. It is in this context that I relate the dream.

I hope this short article serves to offer some reassurance when your child next dreams of a bogeyman, or being chased by a dinosaur, or wants to run away from someone or something. In the end it may be no more than just a bad day at school or feeling unsettled by the relationship with their siblings.