Thursday, May 31, 2012

Children's Bad Dreams

(image from

One of my daughters has a nightmare almost every night. It is not a reoccurring dream (the characters and details vary) but they always seem to have the theme of being chased or watching a family member being captured. When she relays the dreams to me I can agree that they are scary - they'd scare me! The villians are often men - old men, police men, robbers- but the other night she had a dream about a giant rooster.

Dreams about being chased ( by a giant rooster or otherwise) usually refer to feeling the need to escape a real life situation or feeling anxiety or fear about something. For children, chasing dreams are common; they are a way of coping with the stresses and unfamiliarity that they confront in life. Stressors like tension in the home or school issues can be triggers for these dreams. Interestingly, monsters in dreams can represent people in the child's life.

Bad dreams, however,are not necessarily a bad thing. Researchers in Finland have proposed that nightmares help us, and especially children, to prepare for real life situations. Interestingly, childhood's earliest dreams mirror those of our earlier ancestors when they dreamt of being chased by wild animals. Understanding this fact can help us to put nightmares into perspective and appreciate the role that they have in our waking life.

Helping my daughter cope with these dreams is an ongoing battle but I have come across some ideas that seem to help:

1) talking through her worries during the day
2) praying before bed for good dreams and protection
3) eating less sugar and chemical ridden food (this suggestion was given to me by a Chinese herbalist)
4) writing down her dreams in a journal
5) confronting what is chasing her in her dreams (Robert Moss suggests that then the "monster" will back off or change to more manageable proportions)

Robert Moss, in his helpful book, Active Dreaming, has some other suggestions for helping children through their nightmares such as drawing a picture, acting out the dream or thinking of a "dream companion" (such as a stuffy or icon like Jesus or the Incredible Hulk) that can help them out in the dream.

Let me know if you have come across any other solutions.


  1. Hi,
    I am a child psychotherapist. Nightmares can be a real problem that keeps children (and parents!) from getting enough sleep. But telling children that their bad dreams aren't "really" scary just keeps children running into their parents' bedroom night after night. Helping children to realize that "dreams are stories we tell ourselves for a reason: and helping the understand that the reason lies with "unfinished business" from the day before will empower children to make sense of their own dreams and put themselves back to bed without having to awaken their parents. I have written a children's book for ages 3 and up, Mommy, Daddy, I Had a Bad Dream! ( to help children and parents respond constructively to children's bad dreams. Joey, a bouncy kangaroo has a series of bad dreams which his parents lovingly help him to understand until, by the last one, he is able to understand why he had it and to go back to bed feeling comforted and in charge. Reading this book with your daughter might help her to think and talk about what is upsetting her during the day and showing up in her dreams at night. Martha Heineman Pieper, PhD.

  2. Thanks Martha - sounds helpful. I will definitely check it out!