02/20/2013 01:07 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Hey Parents: It's Not 'Just a Dream'

It's the middle of the night and your child suddenly wakes up, startled into awareness by a series of strange images and powerful emotions that seemed entirely real just moments ago. She's confused, and a maybe little scared. Questions fill her mind. What just happened? Where was I?Nothing like that has ever happened to me before...

She can't help it -- she starts crying, and calls for you.

You stumble through the darkness, half-asleep yourself, trying to think of how to calm her down. You might be tempted, if you are like many parents in present-day society, to soothe her by saying something like, "Don't worry, dear, it was just a dream."

"Just a dream..."

These words may be well-intentioned and seem perfectly reasonable from your adult perspective, but I suggest your child will likely hear a very different message. She will hear that you, and perhaps all grown-ups, don't care about dreams. She will hear that dreams are not "real," not important, not worthy of serious attention. She will realize she is alone in trying to make sense of the images and feelings that still echo in her waking mind. After this, she may be more reluctant to tell you about her emotional concerns in the future.

There is another approach, however. As you hug your child and make her feel safe, you try gently asking her what the dream was like. You listen to whatever she's willing to share, reassuring her you understand this was a puzzling experience, very vivid and realistic, yet very hard to put into words. You might even mention that from time to time youhave strange dreams, too, and so do most other people. Rather than dismissing her interest in dreaming, you encourage it. You let her know you look forward to hearing more of her dreams, however bizarre they might sound. You introduce her to the idea that she is a dreamer, and we are all dreamers, and she will have many more dreams through the course of her life.

This alternative approach treats your child's dream not as a problem to be solved, but as a golden opportunity to cultivate the growth of her deep potential for creativity. The truth is, dreaming represents a natural expression of the distinctively human capacity for creative imagination. Indeed, I would define dreaming as our imaginations playing freely in the safe space of sleep. As modern psychological research has made abundantly clear, the same brain-mind processes that are activated to solve problems, generate new ideas and think "outside the box" in waking life are also activated in the state of dreaming. Dreams expand people's sense of possibility, open their minds to new realities and different ways of looking at the world and help them look beyond what is to envision what might be. This is why dreams have been so closely associated throughout history with revolutionary insights and discoveries in religion, art and science.

As a parent, anything you do to nurture your child's interest in dreams is helping to boost the development of her imagination. If you can resist the urge to say, "It was just a dream," if you can instead provide a safe and respectful space for her dream life to unfold of its own accord, your child will benefit from a closer connection with her own inner resources for originality, invention and wonder.