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Common Nightmare Themes in Children

Updated on April 18, 2008
Photo: sknaBnoIA,Flickr
Photo: sknaBnoIA,Flickr

Understanding what's behind the themes or characters in your child's nightmares can help you address your child's fears about them. Here are some of the most common childhood dreams and nightmares according to dream expert Jane Teresa Anderson. Although all dreams will point to different circumstances in an individual life, the meanings behind these common themes are generally the same. You also may want to learn how to help your child create alternate endings to bad dreams.

Being Chased - This is supposedly the most common childhood nightmare. Kids are often chased by monsters, animals, or mean people. Even a force of nature or inanimate object may be after the child. In a chasing dream, the one being chased runs away or hides but cannot escape the chasing. Something chasing the child represents a fear that needs to be faced. The chaser cannot be escaped until it is faced. You need to figure out what the chaser represents in the child's life. Ask lots of questions about the character of the chaser and be open to notice similarities to waking life situations or people.

Drowning or Big Waves - A common nightmare involves a child at the beach (or anywhere) and is suddenly faced with a huge tidal wave or tsunami. As it approaches, she tries to run (and usually wakes). A variation is being out in deep water with the sense she could drown. Water in dreams can represent emotions and feelings. Big water equals big emotions. The water is an issue that has gotten too big for the dreamer. You can only suppress emotions for so long before they threaten to overwhelm you. Like the chaser in the dream above, the water needs to be faced head on. Look for a current troubling issue, but also help your child develop the language to describe complicated emotions so that they don't pile up on her.

Loss -It's common for kids to have nightmares about losing something, possibly including trying to find the object and failing. This dream is almost literal. The child has lost something. The trick is to figure out what the thing represents. If a child dreams of losing her stuffed animal that she needs in order to fall asleep, she's probably feeling insecure about something. Dreams about losing something she treasures like a sports trophy may point to a loss of self-value.

Abstract Dreams - I don't know about you, but for me the scariest dreams are sometimes those that don't seem to make any sense at all. It's the same for kids. Some nightmares don't have a story line. Common abstract dreams are a feeling of being crushed or suffocated picture in an enclosed space, a picture of swirling colors and a feeling of being unsteady or unstable. Again, you'll need to ask lots of questions about the content of the dream to try to tease out what it represents.

Read Help Children Recover From Nightmares to help your child create alternate endings to bad dreams.


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  • Lela Davidson profile image

    Lela Davidson 9 years ago from Bentonville, Arkansas

    It's interesting to learn the meaning behind the themes. I guess because kids have less life experience, their symbols are more literal.

    ElizabethW - I wonder that too, if some kids are just afraid of what might come after they fall asleep without remembering any dreams at all.

  • donnaleemason profile image

    donnaleemason 9 years ago from North Dakota, USA

    Good advice.


  • profile image

    ElizabethW 9 years ago

    Great Hub- Good tips. My daughter doesn't remember having nightmares. She is often afraid to go to sleep at night. I think that she has scary dreams and anticipates the fear before she even falls asleep. I will ask her more questions now at bed time.

  • profile image

    Graceful Guardian 9 years ago

    Thank you for this hub,I know children have lots of nightmares and this is very helpful.