How to Understand a Child’s Dream


Ask your child what he dreamed about last night. Can he remember? Chances are he can’t, but chances are he did dream. Virtually everybody dreams, even though they often for­get the content of their dreams when they wake up.

Dreams occur during REM sleep—that phase of sleep in which the eyes move about very rapidly while still shut, as if scanning a picture beneath the unopened eyelids. Experiments have revealed that 80 percent of people report having dreams when woken during REM sleep, while less than 10 percent do when woken at other times. The length of the dreamer’s descrip­tion of a dream is directly related to the length of time he has been allowed to have an uninterrupted period of REM sleep.

Research by American psychologists suggests the following:

  • Three-year-olds give short accounts of dreams, with very lit­tle action and feeling in them. Dreams in this age group are often about play sequences that take place in familiar set­tings, or about animals.
  • Six-year-olds produce much longer accounts of their dreams, with a lot more movement and activity. Their dreams usually feature friends or members of the immedi­ate family. The dreamers themselves play a passive role.

  • Six-year-old girls tend to dream about about friendly people, and often have happy endings. Six-year-old boys’ dreams contain more conflict and aggression. This gender differ­ence disappears when children reach age seven or eight.
  • Ten- to twelve-year-olds usually have dreams that focus on their home, the play area immediately outside home, or school. Mostly, the people appearing in these dreams are friends or members of the child’s family, although boys of this age often dream about male strangers. Children’s dreams mainly center on play and other leisure activities. The majority of dreams experienced by young children are not frightening or distressing.

REM sleep is found not only in adults, children, and young babies—even a fetus has REM sleep. Ultrasonography has shown that a fetus begins to have REM sleep as early as the twenty-third week of pregnancy. Amazing to think that a being so young—some seventeen weeks before leaving the womb — could actually be dreaming. Of course, precisely what is going on in the mind of the fetus is unknown at this point. But we do know, from close electronic monitoring of newborns, that dur­ing periods of REM sleep babies experience intense stimulation through their central nervous system. Almost 50 percent of a new-baby’s sleep is REM sleep.

During a baby’s first year of life, total sleep time drops from about sixteen hours per day to about thirteen hours per day. Since the amount of non-REM sleep stays the same, this means that the amount of REM sleep is considerably reduced between birth and twelve months. This pattern continues until adult­hood, by which time approximately 20 to 25 percent of total sleep is REM sleep.

Freud maintained that the only way to fully understand a child is to understand his unconscious mind, and that the best way to do this is through interpretation of the child’s dreams. He reached two major conclusions about children’s dreams. First, the purpose of a child’s dream is to allow a hidden wish to come true: a wish that can never become a reality in the child’s real world—or that would get the child into trouble if he did try to make it come true—can become a reality in the child’s dream world. Second, a child’s dream is usually triggered by something that has happened in the previous twenty-four hours—for example, a fight with a friend, a reprimand from parents, an incident involving a particular toy, or a comment from another child.

Analyzing the dreams of very young children, from eigh­teen months upwards, is very easy, claimed Freud, since a young child always dreams of the fulfillment of wishes that were aroused the previous day but were not satisfied. So in order to understand the child’s dreams, simply ask the child about his previous day’s experiences.

Some dreams, though, require more interpretation than this because they use symbols to represent people and objects in the child’s life. For instance, parents are often symbolized by figures of authority, particularly royalty. Other common symbols that appear in children’s dreams include falling into, or coming out of, water (representing birth); houses (representing people); and rodents or other small animals (representing brothers or sisters). Very young children rarely use symbolism in their dreams.

To interpret the meaning of your child’s dreams, use these principles—you may not get it right every time, but you’ll have some fun trying.

  • Wait until your child is fully awake before you ask him about his dreams, because young children can have difficulty know­ing when they are awake and when they are asleep.
  • Use a relaxed, casual voice when asking your child about his dreams. If you seem too interested, he may become con­cerned and not want to tell you.
  • Be satisfied with a short answer. Don’t expect a long descrip­tion. Most young children will give only a sentence, two at most, about their dreams.
  • Look for symbolism. Pay particular attention to the people and objects mentioned in the dream, even if you don’t rec­ognize them. These objects may be dream symbols that rep­resent something else in the child’s life.
  • Look for a central theme running through the dream that may signify the fulfillment of your child’s hidden desire.
  • Try to make a link between the content of the dream and an incident involving your child that has taken place in the past day or so.
  • Bear in mind related emotions. Once your child has told you about his dream, ask him how he felt during it. The feeling accompanying a dream can be a good clue about its mean­ing because it can reveal whether the dream is happy or sad, worrying or relaxing, and so on.
  • Have patience. If you have difficulty analyzing your child’s dreams, don’t worry—despite what Freud said, some psy­chologists spend years in training before they are able to interpret children’s dreams accurately.
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  4. How to Understand Your Children from Their Teachers
  5. How to Help a Child Overcome Fear

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About the Author: Alan Kennon lives a very happy life with two kids and a lovely wife. He likes to share his life time experiences with others about how they can improve their lifestyle and personality.

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