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Dreaming To Grow

The best thing about this is that recalling and playfully exploring dreams helps kids develop their emotional intelligence: it gives them life-long access to a kind of natural intuition and an inexhaustible source of creativity.
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Someday your kids will leave home, and by then they will have had tens of thousands of dreams. How many of these will they have shared? Paying attention to their dreams can be fascinating, considering that they are, among other things, a reflection of their desires, fears and day-to-day worries. By taking an interest in your children's dreams, you will encourage them to take an interest, too. The best thing about this is that recalling and playfully exploring dreams helps kids develop their emotional intelligence: it gives them life-long access to a kind of natural intuition and an inexhaustible source of creativity.

Dream-sharing has many clear benefits for children:

  • Knowing that adults are listening to their dreams strengthens their self-esteem by allowing them to see the relevance of their emotions, their longings and ultimately their entire inner world. This makes them more conscious people, with greater judgment and resilience to external pressures.
  • It does wonders for their creativity. Dreams are the greatest proof that we are creative by nature: every night our mind takes us to a surprising new world! If you want to help your kids become what they really want to be, you need to make sure they are in touch with all of their resources, and dreams will empower them to do just that. Some parents suspect that when kids explain their dreams, a good amount of what they say is made up. That's just fine--they're training their imagination, and imagination needs listening ears if it's going to take flight.
  • By explaining their dreams, children can express their fears and desires through metaphor. This is much easier for them than explaining what they are feeling directly, and it is just as freeing. Bear in mind that dreams can touch on emotionally delicate subjects for little boys and girls, such as the distress they feel about certain academic expectations or how they are affected by their parents' arguments. They may even indicate that they are victims of bullying. Listening to their dreams can help you better understand how they feel about this kind of situation. It's not uncommon that a seemingly banal conversation about dreams ends up bending towards topics that are important for kids. If this happens, it's a great opportunity for you to find creative solutions to these everyday challenges.

In many societies around the world, dreams are considered an essential part of children's education. But in our culture, even though more and more parents are sure that dream-sharing improves family communication and psychologists insist that exploring dreams can do tremendous good for personal maturity, certain prejudices still prevail. One of the strongest prejudices is the parallel that we draw between dreams and nightmares (and, of course, if the only thing we dream is unpleasant, it's best to forget.) It's true that nightmares are easier to remember, and this might lead us to believe that our nights belong exclusively to them. However, after sharing dreams, you and your kids will start remembering them better, and you'll see with increasing clarity that many of your dreams are deeply stimulating and actually quite pleasant.

That said, it's true that children have nightmares more often than adults. All around the world, certain themes seem to be common to all children: dreams of flying and falling, being naked or ridiculously dressed in public, passing a test, and so on. These dreams are commonplace in children and, generally speaking, they shouldn't be cause for alarm. They are part of natural psychological development. If the same dream comes up time and again, it might be worth considering what situation or personal relationship is distressing them, especially if we don't notice the dreams improving over time.

For example, it is common to have nightmares about feeling trapped. Like all unpleasant dreams, it might reflect an experience from the day before (a visiting aunt's too-tight hug, the pressure of a seatbelt) but it may also reflect a psychologically distressing situation (such as a relationship at school that the child does not know how to navigate, leading them to feel metaphorically trapped). But the most common nightmare among kids across the globe is the one about being threatened by an animal. Like all oneiric threats, it could be indicative of a troubling situation in a child's life. In my clinical experience, if the real-life difficulties get worse, the pursuing animal in the dreams may become a monster or an abstract being. It is worth asking your child to give you details when they are explaining their dream, even if they woke you up. For example, ask your child to describe the animal or monster. Does it remind them of anyone they know? Where does the pursuit take place? Explaining the details might help your child relax, in addition to giving you some clues as to the dream's roots. If your son or daughter doesn't feel like speaking, don't insist. Maybe after a tough-to-digest dream, the best thing is just to give them a loving hug.

It's important to remember that, unlike with adults, interpreting kids' dreams doesn't do much good. If we try, they usually close off shortly thereafter to protect themselves from what they perceive as meddling or judgement. It is much more effective to explore kids' dreams through active listening by giving them questions about their feelings, asking them for a detailed description of the story's different aspects and nuances. Most importantly, be sure to do it all with total respect. Remember that, as unrealistic as the dream may seem to you, for them it was a "real" experience, and it'll do little good to drop the age-old expression "don't worry, it was just a dream." Children know that the terror they have felt is real.

In any case, regardless of whether the dream was unpleasant, hilarious, magical or bizarre, the next day, a lot can be done with it. Remember that, regardless of what you set out to do, it is useful to explore the dream in a playful way. A few options might include:

  • Giving your child their first dream diary (if they don't yet know how to write, they can tell you what happened and you can write it down).
  • Give them the chance to draw a picture of the dream, or of the most important parts.
  • Have them act out the dream: recreate what it sounded like when they were flying, jump like the blue kangaroo, pounce on Mom or Dad while trying to make a face like the monster. This is especially effective with younger children.
  • Represent the dream through dance, making the movements that the characters would make if they could dance.
  • Make puppets or clay figures of the main characters.
  • Dream the dream forward: suggest that they continue the story and add whatever new elements they would like.
  • Change the ending: this is especially interesting with nightmares, since it gives the child a sense of control over what has happened.
  • Write a poem based on the dream.

You should also tell them about the dreams that you can remember. In fact, it is especially good for your kids to know that you also have nightmares (if you do.) Instead of feeling their insecurity heighten, they'll feel like they are not alone and realize that having such unpleasant dreams isn't such a big deal. So, insofar as its possible for you, tell them about your nightly travels. You might even find that their comments are surprising and revealing!

In fact, sharing dreams as a family can be a powerful way to strengthen the family bond, since you're considering deeply meaningful images--perhaps even images that are unique to your "tribe." Time after time, I've encountered families who discovered common elements in all of their dreams, as if they were patterns unique to those families. In any case, if you open the door to your dreams, be ready for any surprise.

So, if you're up for it, keep these tips in mind:

1- At night: before bedtime, tell your kids that it's possible to remember dreams (everyone has several dreams every night, though sometimes we don't remember them). Together you can write a note that says something to the effect of "Tonight I'll have a lovely dream," and leave it under their pillow. Suggest that, when they wake up, they lie in bed for minute with their eyes closed, just to see if images from their dreams reappear. It is best to do all of this without pressuring them. Expectations that are too high might block the memory and lead to frustration.

2- The next day, if you can, share your dreams (at breakfast, for example), since if you try to do it later, you'll probably have forgotten most of them. Remember to listen to your children's dreams with empathy and without trying to interpret. Instead, try to be mindful of the reactions or feelings that their dreams arouse.

Here's a good exercise that will help you prepare to share dreams with your kids: draw a picture of the oldest dream you can remember. This can be a very powerful experience, and it can take you back to times long-past very easily. Dreams that remain etched in our memories are often associated with crucial moments in our development and, often, they act as a sort of internal rite of passage that helps us transition from one stage of life to a very different one. Taking your time with this exercise might put you in touch with the feelings and perspective you had when you were a child in an uncertain and changing world. This will help you to better understand your child's current perspective. And, as a bonus, when you show your children your drawing, it might motivate them to do the same with their own dreams.

Every night, just like Alice in Wonderland, you fall down the rabbit hole and end up, time and again, among your dreams, in a magic world where everything's possible. Maybe in one of your current dreams, you find yourself surrounded by surprisingly large objects. When this happens, you might want to consider whether your mind is subconsciously expressing something about your first years of life (when your surroundings were much larger than they are today). Not all dreams come from childhood, but you cannot deny that our early experiences transcend our adult lives. As a child, you probably wished that the adults who were looking out for you would pay attention to your dreams and to your inner world. Now you have the chance to do this for your own kids and, sooner or later, they'll thank you for it.

About the author:
Jordi Borràs García is a psychologist, a Advisory Board Member at DreamsCloud, the founder of the mondesomnis and a Board Member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.