What Your Child's Dreams REALLY Mean!

Posted by Kathryn Stolle on

So many possibilities! It could be their dreams or fantasies for the future. Or the dream they had last night. It could be a recurring nightmare that you have to deal with as your child cries in your arms.

In order to understand on all levels what's going on in their wee little brains as they sleep, it's knowing how to Listen - with a capital L !

We’ll review Sleep FAQs, how and why children dream and, most importantly, that how you listen and respond to your child’s dreams can set the stage for their positive development.

5 Quick FAQs About Sleep

#1 There are two types of sleep: REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM (non-Rapid Eye-Movement) that’s broken down into three stages: N1 - very light sleep; N2 - slightly deeper sleep and N3 – deep or slow-wave sleep.

#2 During REM all the neurons fire in synch as you replay and consolidate what you have learned during the day; your brain actually rehearses what you have learned - especially interesting from the standpoint of athletes or anyone trying to learn.

#3 In REM, you dump unimportant facts like where you put your keys or when you fed the dog - what Dr. Matt Carter, Senior Fellow at the University of Washington calls your brain's "sink full of dirty dishes."

He points out that it's hard to learn new things if your brain hasn't had a chance to get rid of these unimportant things.

#4 Muscles do not grow or change during exercise, it happens in Stages N2 and N3 when all rejuvenation and repair of the body occurs!

#5 In REM sleep, the muscles of the arms and legs are temporarily paralyzed – keeping you from acting out your dreams.


And in Children?

As a newborn, your child spends twice as much time as you do in REM sleep. REM is not only associated with dream time, but also assists in their brain development. At the same time, they experience a relatively large amount of N3 restorative sleep.

That’s when you pick them up and there doesn’t seem to be a single bone in their body! And why is it that they seem to weigh more than when they’re awake?!

As they get older, the amount of time in REM decreases to about 25-30% at age 5 and about 20% for teens and adults.  

Let’s Talk Dreams

Maybe it’s time to stop and reframe the way we think about dreaming while asleep.

As was believed up until the electroencephalogram (EEG) was introduced in 1929 and REM sleep was discovered in 1953, it’s not a time of inactivity for the brain – in fact, during REM your brain can be even more active than when awake.

If you accept that REM sleep is a time when you consolidate memories and process what you have learned, consider what goes on in a young child’s brain.

Their days are spent:

  • observing you and listening to what you tell them – both verbally and non-verbally;
  • being exposed to a wide variety of ideas and concepts when they watch TV or play on devices;
  • learning about the physical challenges inherent in their environment – water can be hot and cold or falling from 6” isn’t the same as falling from 3’;
  • experiencing traumatic events like moving, entering school or losing a parent;
  • and on it goes.

 Is it any wonder that children’s dreams can be so vivid and sometimes overwhelming? 

Nightmares and What to Do About Them

Nightmares – the big, memorable and highly impressive dreams that we remember upon waking - can be, as posited by Carl Jung, a valuable source of psychological growth.

That’s why rather than just patting your child on the back and saying “It’s only a bad dream”, it’s important to listen to what is being said and intuit what isn’t.

Dr. Alan Siegel in “Nightmare Remedies: Helping Your Child Tame the Demons of the Night” suggests four remedies for banishing the bad dream:

Reassurance – the physical and emotional act of holding your child and speaking calmly so that they can give details of the dream. Particularly small children need the comfort of your arms about them along with your understanding.

Rescripting – helping them find “magical tools” to trick, trap, boss and otherwise triumph over the monsters, bugs and other nasties that inhabit their dream time. It can be anything from fairy dust or magic wand to a special incantation taken from movies and TV shows, your child’s interests and even your cultural background and take the form of art work, fantasy, drama and writing.

As you listen, mirror what is being said and help them discover their own best "magical tool". At the same time, pay attention to cues that give you insight into what could have caused the nightmare in the first place.

And keep the solutions as non-violent as possible, please!

Rehearsal – repeat the dream and practice the solutions you and your child have come up with.

The questions you ask are important: tell me about it. How did that make you feel? Can I help? What do you want to do? It goes beyond the “magical tools” as they come to grips with some of their underlying fears.

Everything seems less terrifying and terrible in the bright light of day. Take another look at the situation from different angles – it could be that a recent move, new school, bullying or other life problem is at the bottom of it all and can be acknowledged and talked through, in addition to the monster under the bed.

What is MOST important is listening to their answers with an open mind and heart.

Resolution – after you have gone through reassurance, rescripting and rehearsal, your child can move to resolution of the challenges and difficulties in their lives. This might not necessarily be true of an infant or non-verbal child, but certainly with verbal toddlers and up.

You will have helped them to banish those nighttime fears and enjoy sweet dreams instead. 

Recurrent, Overwhelming Nightmares

Particularly violent or disturbing dreams that don’t change or allow for even partial resolution, could be the result of deeper emotional and even physical issues that are best shared with a medical professional.


Continue to view your child’s dreams – both good and bad – as part of their normal psychological development. How you listen and respond, helping them face their fears and find tools to deal with them, can make a difference in their self-confidence and assertiveness.

A healthy imagination is part of the fabric of childhood and dreams can be your key to unlocking the wonder and mystery of your child’s development.


Dare to dream? Oh, yes!







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