One day, a child came snuffling and sobbing down the stairs in the morning, and when I asked what was the matter, she said, “Mama, I dreamed that you were dead.”
Oh, poor thing. I tried to wrap my arms around her and give her comfort, but she wasn’t done.
“And . . .and I had a REALLY HARD TIME GETTING MY BREAKFAST,” she wept.
Ah. My first impulse was to be offended. Is that all I am to you? A pourer of juice? The one who knows how to work a toaster? My death makes you weep because the most important meal of the day is now compromised?
But then I considered. This is a very young child. She has barely emerged from the age when food and mother are all one thing, not to mention the age when mother and she are one thing. To such a little one, a cold, empty breakfast table really is a terrible thing, a dreadful loss.
It’s very much like the song “ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.” You wouldn’t scoff at that man and say, “Oh, I guess you don’t really love that woman; you just care about getting your vitamin D!” To him, she is the very sunshine. To my daughter, I was breakfast. That’s how much I meant to her, in her dreams. When I thought it over, I was very moved (and I made her a nice breakfast right away).
I do love hearing about my kids’ dreams. They’re sometimes fascinating, and often very funny. And some of my kids are usually fairly tight-lipped, especially when they hit the teen years, and I am openly hungry to know what is going on in their heads, and dreams are where it’s at.
But I do have to brace myself when I turn up in their dreams.
Dream parents, when they’re not dead, behave abominably, at least at our house. We are just the worst. We are constantly missing their birthdays, telling our bewildered children they get no Christmas this year, driving them off cliffs, refusing to look out the window when they’re trying to warn us there’s a tornado made of tigers outside, and so on. Sometimes we spread a giant feast on a table and then tell them they can’t have any; sometimes we just throw away their favorite shoes.
I don’t think I’ve ever behaved decently in their dreams. I don’t take it personally anymore. I know I’m a pretty okay mother in real life, and I know the kids more or less know I love them. I also know that dreams are where people work out our feelings about things, and the emotional content of a dream is much more significant than the actual plot and characters.
Just as the very young child was unable to tell the difference between the death of her mother and the loss of breakfast, and older child may not be able to discern (in their dreams, at least) the difference between “something bad is happening to me” and “my parents are monsters.” At different stages of development, the lines between me and thee, inside and outside, are blurry and shifting, and that’s doubly true when we’re dreaming.
So when a kid dreams about parents doing unfair, outrageous things to the kid, it may very well not be a dream about the parent at all. It’s pretty likely actually a dream about the kid and how he is feeling about his life. The parent gets to be the aggressor in the dream because parents are the main doer-of-things-to-kids, so parents are the most obvious choice to act the part as the one who does something unpleasant to the kid.
Parents loom large in real life, so when kids need a way to express to themselves that they feel impinged upon in some way, it’s probably going to be the parent acting that part. But what the dream is really about is how that kid feels and responds to the unpleasant thing.
Do they feel powerless? Do they feel angry? Do they feel afraid? Do they feel energized and motivated to save the day? This is the important part. That’s what the dream is about. Kids, especially, are very self-centered (in a healthy, developmentally appropriate way, I mean), so when they dream, they dream about themselves.
It’s very common, especially as they hit pre-teen and teen years, for kids to feel that life is unfair, or that they’re the only one who understands something and no one will listen to them, or that things have gone out of control –maybe someone who is supposed to be in charge has disappeared — and they have to struggle desperately to get back in control.
And so these overwhelming feelings turn up in dreams, and the larger machinery that produces those feelings is likely to be parents. If a child is having a lot of dreams of being hunted and persecuted and tormented, and if they are disrupting sleep regularly, then it might be time to take a closer look and see if something bad is going on with the kid; but some dreams like this seem to be a normal part of growing up. Unless there is some very obvious catastrophe or betrayal or injustice in the child’s life, these are probably not actually dreams about the adult doing anything wrong. They are probably typical dreams that signify a child slowly coming into his own identity as separate from his parents and from his family, and facing very normal mixed emotions as they come of age.
Sometimes a kid will even dream that there are zombies or some other scary monster pretending to be their parents. I used to think this signified that my kids thought I was a hypocrite, and that they could tell that my patience and dedication were just a mask that could slip at any time.
But this was me massively projecting my own fears about my adequacy as a parent onto them. Dreams about something scary pretending to be your parent are most likely about things in general not being what they seem — about a child not being as secure or in control as he once thought he was when he was younger, for instance.
Anyway, that’s what I think. Probably the significance of dreams varies as much as individual psyches themselves vary, which is quite a bit. But I do think that parents shouldn’t put too much stock in the dreams of their children, or at least remember that dream rules are different from waking rules.
What do you think? As usual, my training and expertise in this matter are absolutely zero; it’s just something I’m interested in!