Why do children suffer so many nightmares? And what, if anything, can parents do to help?
Having bad dreams from time to time is a perfectly normal part of child development. Nightmares can occur whenever a person encounters something new, strange, startling, or threatening in waking life. For children, new and startling events are happening all the time as their bodies change and grow, their mental powers expand, their social lives become increasingly complicated, and they learn more about how the adult world works (and, disturbingly, doesn't work).
This means that children, more often than adults, are having exactly the kinds of experiences in their waking lives that tend to trigger the occurrence of nightmares.
If your child is having a non-stop series of extremely upsetting dreams, you should certainly consider contacting the child's physician. Fortunately, cases like that are rare. For the vast majority of children, having nightmares every once in a while is simply part of growing up.
One of the paradoxical ideas in Carl Jung's dream theory is that nightmares can be valuable sources of psychological growth. The natural temptation is to shy away from nightmares, as we shy away from anything that seems dangerous or harmful. Indeed, the most likely situation for parents to use the "It was just a dream" phrase is when their children have woken up in the middle of the night, crying from a bad dream.
However, from Jung's perspective nightmares occur when especially strong energies from the unconscious mind emerge in response to strange or frightening incidents in the child's waking life. The dreams are scary because they feel overwhelming to the child's young ego, like a newly sprouted plant that's being blown sideways by a strong gust of wind. But if those new experiences and unconscious energies can be integrated within the child's mind, the result is a lessening of fear and a new burst of psychological growth.
Jung taught that nightmares may arise as a symptom of failed integration, an unhealthy split of the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. This is why his approach to nightmares was to encourage the dreamer to accept the frightening elements as parts of themselves. Jung said to his students, "A persecutory dream always means: This wants to come to me... You would like to split it off, you experience it as something alien -- but it just becomes all the more dangerous." (1) Instead of fighting against these unconscious energies, Jung advocated accepting them. He did not mean acting them out or surrendering to their control, but rather acknowledging their reality within us and respecting their role in the healthy functioning of our minds.
That's easier said than done, of course. The best thing parents can do is simply show genuine interest in their children's dreams, whether good or bad, funny or scary, bizarre or trivial. You don't have to interpret or analyze their dreams, you just try to create a safe, comfortable space for them to explore the images and feelings of their dreams and come to some kind of understanding of them.
As we discuss in our book on children's dreams, Jung also emphasized the preparatory value of dreams in terms of spiritual growth and insight. The dreams and nightmares of childhood can give us our first glimpses of transcendence, our first encounters with sacred powers and mind-stretching possibilities, our first feelings of awe and wonder. The spiritual path of a person's life often begins with such experiences.
1. Carl Jung, Children's Dreams: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936-1940 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) (translated by Ernst Falzeder and Tony Woolfson), p. 19.