The only dream I remember from childhood featured a dragon.

I am standing down the street from my grandmother’s house. It is nighttime. I see a huge hole in her front yard and suddenly, a giant, reddish, bat-winged dragon emerges from the hole. I am afraid, but I am also fascinated with the creature.

My best guess is that I had this dream around age nine. A lot of intense things were going on in my house then and I was forced to deal with emotional situations beyond my capacity. The dragon in my dream is a scaly, monstrous representation of all that scary stuff coming right up from the unconscious.

But I also had a sense of fascination with the dragon, as if it had something to tell me. I didn’t want to run away; instead, I wanted to watch it, see what it would do. Perhaps I thought that if I came to understand it, I could make it my ally.

Carl Jung asserted that “many ‘big’ or spiritually significant dreams occur in childhood” (Adams). Since this is the only one I remember, I have a feeling unpacking this dream would be spiritually significant for me and reveal the major issues I’ve dealt with as an adult.

My friend Shari also remembers a dragon dream from childhood, a recurring dream she had when she was four.

I am in front of my grandmother’s house, on the sidewalk, heading toward the alley that runs alongside the property. Everything is black and white. Suddenly in the alley is a huge green dragon; ten feet tall with ridges or plates going down his spine, a long tail. He is upright, on his hind legs. I am terrified. I try to scream but no sound comes out. The dragon is coming toward me and I can’t get away. I am screaming for help, but still no sound. Then my aunt Bobbe emerges from behind the dragon and takes me in her arms. I am safe but the feeling of fear and trauma lingers with me after I awaken.

In this dream, Shari’s world goes from black and white to full of color when she sees the green dragon. She faces it and the dragon pursues her, but she is saved by her aunt. Here is another instance of a dragon representing fear. Luckily Shari sees that she has a safe place to go in the face of the dragon.

Dreams in Children

Our most vivid dreams come to us in REM sleep, and we enter this stage of sleep from the time of birth. Theorists disagree about when dreams show up in REM sleep; “some say around 13 months, Freud reported dreams of 18-month old children, Piaget said dreams show up around 2 years” (Colace, p. 59).

Although for a long time researchers believed children did not have much understanding about their dreams and were unable to differentiate waking states from dream states, children as young as four know their dreams do not happen in physical space and that they are private, in their own minds (Woolley and Wellman, p. 377).

So we know that children dream from an early age, and we also know that children have a fairly sophisticated understanding of dreams. Therefore it behooves us to take our children’s dreams seriously.

Working Dreams with Children

It is important to treat children’s dreams with respect. The worst thing to say to a child is that the dream isn’t real, because, especially with emotionally charged dreams, the material seems quite real. Even though children may be able to distinguish waking life from dream life, the emotions attached to dreams feel incredibly real, as anyone who’s had a nightmare knows.

Often, children will want to talk about their dreams. They need someone who can listen and take them seriously.

One way to work a dream with children is through dream theater. You can assign roles to stuffed animals or action figures and have the child act out the dream. Or you can get your family involved and help your child act out the dream. Just ensure that, if the dream brings up scary emotions, you are there to comfort and reassure your child.

Let’s take my dream as an example. One person would be me, another would be the dragon. You could also ask one person to be the house and another to be the road, depending on how many people you have. Ask your child to describe the action so each actor knows their role

Then recreate the dream, having each character interact with the others, speaking to one another and doing what feels natural.

With my dream, it might be helpful to have me talk to the dragon to see what it wants to say to me. This can provide incredible insights

Another option is asking your child to draw the dream. Like dream theater, this will access the same part of the brain that created the dream and it can help your child understand the dream on a deeper level.

References

Adams, Kate (2011). Five reasons to listen to your children’s dreams. Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/childs-play/201107/five-reasons-listen-your-childrens-dreams. Accessed February 15, 2012.

Colace, Claudio (2010). Freud’s observations on children’s dreams and the modern dream research. London, GBR: Karnac Books.

Woolley, Jacqueline and Wellman, Henry (1992). Children’s conceptions of dreams. Cognitive Development, 7, p. 365-380.