“I don’t use drugs: my dreams are frightening enough”. M. C. Esher
Nightmares. We’ve all had some version of them, from a single mild disturbance to all out panic and repetitive horror shows. This next series of blogs will begin to address the “full catastrophe” of this ubiqitous phenomenon. (to quote one of my favorite characters Zorba, who is in turn quoted by John Cabot Zinn).
What causes nightmares? The whole range of things that influence our dreams (remember those layers from the last blog?) contribute to nightmares as well. Yes, that spicy pizza we ate last night can be an influence. More to the point though, they are usually generated by upsetting encounters or life circumstances that we’ve had over the last few days, stuck emotions or unsatisfied places in our life that we haven’t figured out what to do about yet, or long term unfinished business from our childhood or beyond. That “beyond” includes sensory and image memories that have not been encoded into language, or scenes from other lifetimes that seep through the thinned veil of our consciousness when we are asleep. Repetitive nightmares are an SOS from our unconscious- something is not right in Mudville, and our dreaming self is trying it’s darndest to get us to sit up and figure out what it is, and what we need to do about it.
First, a few words about kids and nightmares. Kids dreams are also affected by what is going on in their lives, but it is also important to know that having nightmares is a normal developmental stage for many children. From about 4 or 5 until about 8 or 9, many kids are just beginning to recognize that their previously “infallible and all protecting parents” are not perfect protectors, and that the world can be a scary place. This comes as a shock! “What do you mean that you can’t make Joey my hamster alive again?!”
It seems that this dawning consciousness that parents can’t do it all, and that they (the kids) will have to leave the nest for increasing periods of time, make this age span a common time of nightmares. They have to come to terms with how to negotiate and stay safe in the world, and anxieties can seep into sleep. For many kids, the nightmares resolve by themselves, with just a little TLC and good parenting techniques. For others, some of these tried and true methods may help restore them to feeling competence and power in their worlds.
Here are a few techniques that are helpful for kids to gain some power over their night monsters: (ps- they can work for adults too!)
Vanquishing the Nightmare
1. Never underestimate the power of a good nightlight to chase away the scary dark.
2. In addition to an actual nightlight, some kids love to have a “monster vaporizer” in the form of a flashlight, that when pointed into all the dark corners and under the bed, will automatically vaporize any lurking dangers.
3. Have them tell the story of the dream out loud, and join them in deciding what objects, other people, or magical/spiritual beings they want to bring with them into the dream or into the room to keep them safe.
4. Draw a picture of the nightmare, and then change the picture around by making it humorous (i.e., put a funny hat on the monster), or adding the magical safety items from #3 to the picture.
5. Talk back to the monster, once it is safely contained (i.e. put it in jail, or a cage, or behind a fence or a force field). Even “Na na na na na – you can’t get me!” can be very powerful for a certain age set.
6. My daughter’s personal favorite when she was that age: Draw the dream monster or bad guy, then scribble over it with a heavy black magic marker until it is completely obliterated. Then, if that is not yet enough, rip the paper into tiny shreds. Then, if that is not yet enough, burn the shreds of paper safely in a big pot or container. Then, if that is not yet enough, flush the ashes down the toilet! (part of this method is adapted from “Gentle Reprocessing”, developed by Diane Spindler as a variation on EMDR using imagery.) Keep going until you get to until you get to “Dayenu!” (from the Passover Haggadah, meaning “It would be enough!”
7. Have a conversation with the dream monster or bad guy: Find out why it is there, what it wants, and how to appease or befriend it. Feed it a cookie. See what gift it has brought for the young dreamer. (A great book you can read to young readers, and older ones can read to themselves is “The Wizard of EarthSea”, the first book of “The EarthSea Trilogy” by Ursula Leguin. This great allegory/story closes with the young wizard Ged learning how to face his monsters.)
8. Don’t forget about Native American dreamcatchers: hung over the bed, they “catch” the bad dreams, and the hole in the middle lets the good ones come through.
9. And, of course, hugs, and lullabies, and cuddling, and the power of true and loving presence.
Next time- adults and nightmares: the long and the short of it: methods, techniques, ways to empower yourself, when to seek professional help.