Understanding Our Children’s Dreams

Dennis Rosen, MD is the associate medical director of The Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital and author of Successful Sleep Strategies for Kids.

Dennis Rosen, MD

We all dream during sleep, some more vividly than others. While we may not always pay attention to what happens in some of our dreams, they can be extremely vivid, and associated with a wide range of emotions (sadness, fear, joy) that carries over into wakefulness. This is as true for adults as it is for children: in fact, many adults can recall in great detail dreams that they had decades earlier as children.

Throughout history, humans have viewed dreams and their content as significant, often making important decisions based upon them. Interestingly, though, the tendency of many in our modern society is to ignore them. Indeed, many parents dismiss their children’s dreams, particularly those that are disturbing, as being “only” dreams, instead of cause for reflection.

Kelly Bulkeley, former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and his mother Patricia Bulkley, whose doctoral dissertation was about the dreams of the dying, are the authors of the book Children’s Dreams: Understanding the Most Memorable Dreams and Nightmares of Childhood. This book is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in dreams, why they emerge, and how to try and make sense of their content.

Children’s Dreams starts by providing a brief overview of Jungian theory about the collective unconscious (a part of the unconscious mind that includes patterns of memories, instincts and experiences and is common to all people). The authors explain how unconscious archetypes found in the collective unconscious mix with personal cultural and experiential knowledge to create the content of our dreams.

The authors then present a series of twenty-six dreams dreamt by children at different ages and developmental stages. Using a formula to categorize them, they then identify archetypal components and developmentally-relevant themes within them and use these to interpret these dreams. In keeping with their belief that dreams are significant, and reflect creative thinking in children that should be nurtured, not dismissed, the authors end with a chapter on ways to promote dreaming, dream sharing and the recording of dreams through writing and art.

Children’s Dreams is a very accessible book. The writing flows beautifully and the ideas are clearly presented. Despite addressing complex subjects, it doesn’t fall into the trap of seemingly too complex. There is something, too, that is very satisfying in reading a book that doesn’t offer instant solutions, (“your child’s dream explained in thirty seconds”) but instead provides ways of thinking and approaching what, despite the authors’ valuable insights, will always remain mysterious.  I really enjoyed Children’s Dreams, and expect to be able to draw from what it taught me in my own family as well as with the children I meet in my sleep-medicine clinic, and recommend it to anyone interested in dreams and their significance.