Q. My four year old daughter has occasional nightmares. She will wake up crying and calling for me. When I go to her it is obvious she is terrified by whatever she has dreamed. Sometimes she will tell part of her dream, that a tiger was chasing her, for example. (I tried to convince her there was no tiger there, but she wouldn't believe this.) Often she remembers the nightmare the next day and seems upset. What is the best way to handle her fearfulness? What causes nightmares?
A. Dreams are messages to us from our unconscious. They help us solve a problem. A nightmare is an urgent message about something troubling us. Although some people are rarely aware of dreaming, everyone dreams four or five times each night. Dreams help us integrate the big and little problems or feelings we face on a daily basis. They help us stay asleep - except when they are nightmares.
The dream or nightmare is a metaphor for some feeling or conflict we have experienced the previous day. It may have more than one meaning and may also refer to conflicts or traumas in the past. Children often have nightmares when they are angry with a parent or a parent is angry with them. Hence the tiger might represent angry feelings.
A dream is a picture of our feelings. It is not logical or rational. It also is not direct. It teaches us in the same way a story does and is as creative as any story ever told. Some early American Indian tribes taught their children to share their dreams every day. The Senoi Indians of Malaysia also used dreams in their culture. They were nonviolent, had no crime, no major family disharmony, no mental illness and no police force, perhaps for this reason! They resolved their dream conflicts rather than acting them out.
When your child has a nightmare it is important to comfort her until she is calmed down. Respect your child's fear; don't dismiss it, ridicule it or punish it. A book titled Nightmare Help by Anne Sayre Wiseman details a fascinating approach to children's nightmares.
She would suggest that the child ask the tiger not to come any more tonight because everyone needs their sleep. The book teaches how to help children face their fears and master them. This involves having the child draw the nightmare. Drawing it is easier for some children than telling it. Also, details may be omitted verbally but included in a picture. Either drawing or telling someone the dream helps make the inner conflict conscious. And this leads to mastery.
The author emphasizes respecting the child's need to feel safe and then encouraging him or her to reenter the dream and find solutions to the problem posed in the dream. "Close your eyes and see yourself getting help. What do you see?"
Since there may be some stress in the parent-child relationship, your child may not be willing to work on her dream with you. The problem depicted in the dream may have to do with you! Don't press her to talk about it or to draw a picture of it if she doesn't want to do so. Also do not offer meanings for her dream. Listen carefully, instead, to any meaning she suggests. If your child has frequent nightmares and the ideas in this column or in the book don't relieve them, I recommend family counseling. Many pastors are trained in counseling or could refer you to a Christian counselor.
“All your sons shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.” Isaiah 54:13