When we have Bad Dreams about our Children

The aquariumA reader writes:  I once had a dream that I was running after my boy – he was about two at the time – and he was running away from me down the path of the childhood place I grew up in on summer vacations in the country (not always happy times).

I saw my boy jump into the water, and – horrified – I jumped after him swimming to catch up to him – in deepening horror, I swam deeper and deeper, my eyes open against the darkness of the deep – unable to see him – I desperately felt for him all around – and woke up frightened and relieved to find my boy sleeping in my arms.

Some of the most disturbing (and not uncommon) nightmares that we can have involve our children being hurt or even dying.  Given that our deep Selves are the architects of our dreams, such horrible scenarios might be understood as symbolic representations of our relationship to our own inner child.  Sometimes a death, horrifying as it is in a dream, is a symbol of a part of us that must die so that a new incarnation of the Self can be born.

While dream interpretation is more an art than a science, a good way to start with our own dreams is to ask ourselves what we associate with the various elements of a given dream.  We do this by focusing on each element, and then noting the first thing that comes into our minds.  For example with the above dream the dreamer would associate to:  her child, to being two years old herself, a path, the summer home, etc.  Out of these associations may come clues to hidden meanings, and forgotten paths in our minds and memories.

Dreams can have many, or multiple meanings, but one way to think of the above dream might be:  the dreamer is chasing after a vestige of her own two-year-old self, (innocent, but old enough to walk, to run… and thus to run away or reject).  At two and three, children are working on separation and initial strivings for autonomy, and parents must let them come and go and not take it personally or retaliate; if this did not go well for the dreamer, her child may trip bad feelings by simply passing through an age where she herself got hurt.  The boy in the dream could be running away, but he could also be seen as leading the dreamer, either back into her own childhood with its unresolved hurts, or down the path toward the water—a symbol of both the mother and the unconscious.  The dreamer “jumps” into the psychological situation, motivated by love for a child (our most powerful motivation to find courage, heal, and grow).  She is lead deeper and deeper into the unconscious by the boy, and into her own dark places—perhaps into a representation (unable to understand, or get ahold of her self) of what it felt like to be her when she was two.  In a sense the dreams says that it is time to explore the dark past, and perhaps to heal, motivated by the transcendent love that all mothers (and fathers) have for their children, somewhere in their souls.  The unconscious might also be saying, that the dreamer needs to be more consciously aware of her pain.  Consciousness, even if it hurts, is an excellent way that we parents can avoid unconsciously spilling our unresolved wounds and anxieties onto our children.

Ship and LighthouseIf others care to share any dreams about their children, perhaps we will discover common themes.  Maybe our mutual quest for greater consciousness will benefit our kids and free them from any lingering pain of our own pasts.  If we pay attention to them, even our nightmares can guide us toward our collective “dream” of providing our children with a more compassionate world.

Namaste, Bruce

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10 Responses to “When we have Bad Dreams about our Children”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Thanks for this post Bruce. It said a lot to me. ; – )

    Stephanie.

  2. Vimi Says:

    Hi Bruce,

    I just had a strange dream and I was looking for an interpretation and I stumbled upon this post. It’s a very similar dream but different at the same time.

    It started with me and my friends in a water park. We are having fun and all of a sudden we decide to leave ’cause of cold weather warnings. My dreams just shifted to a different place. Somehow I was at a rocky formation with a lake in the middle. The lake didn’t seem too large, but it was crystal clear, nice blue. My entire family was there. But the people I most vividly remember are my mom, older sis and grandma with my 2 yr old nephew. In that lake we saw giant dolphins, belugas and black whales swimming, or rather having fun. There was a huge crwd to see them . In my dream it seemed like a miracle that so many of these huge bodies would appear in this lake out of nowhere and they are swimming in the direction of the water flow. Surprisingly to me, nobody was trying to hurt them or hunt/fish them either. Everyone was just peacefully watching them swim.

    Then all of a sudden my nephew asked if he could get something for my sis. It seemed very cute. It’s almost as if he said, “mamma, can I get (happiness) for you?” I don’t really remember if he said happiness…this is the only word I don’t quite rememeber. But I do rememeber that we thought that it was cute that a 2 yr old would ask to get this for his mom. my sis just smiled and said yes. Then he started running. To everyone it seemed he’s just running around like small kids do, but I got an intuition that he’s gonna jump from that rocky cliff and I ran after him and he jumped.

    I don’t know what happened after that but the next scene immediately was a huge group of penguins walking in front of me. And then I woke up.

    I don’t know what this means, but I was left quite disturbed because this was the first time I had a dream about my nephew and he jumped off a cliff 😦

    P.S: Last night I had a dream that a tiny black fish dived inside my stomach and is swimming in my blood in my body. Somehow I got it out but it dived in again. I seemed to be very scared in my dream about this.

    It’s been two nights in a row I have been having fish dreams. What do you think it might symbolize?

    Thanks for your help.

  3. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Thanks for sharing this dream. A couple of ideas to consider might be that “cold weather warnings” suggest the psyche is about to deal with the issue of isolation or lack of comfort. Next the body of water is a collective image of the unconscious with these evolved aspects safe and in harmony with the environment. I might think of your sister as your “sad self” and your nephew as your “child self” who seeks to bring happiness to your sad self. The child is natural and without falseness, and thus relates thematically to the natural creatures in the water; water can also represent the feeling aspect of the psyche. The child leads you “off the cliff” of the rational thinking self and toward the water (i.e. into feelings and exploration of the unconscious).

    Next appear penguins in a big group. Penguins are both black and white, so they might represent the melding of your thinking and feeling selves; they are also comfortable on land and in the water, representing your versatile aspect; they are also good parents who work together to keep their babies warm.

    As for the black fish, this dream could be saying that the dark aspect of the self is not a fish out of water, but is at home in your gut (or intuition) and in your blood. They say we once lived in the ocean, and our blood is like sea water. These dreams seem to be inviting you to confront your fears, perhaps feelings of abandonment, coldness, hurt in the past and to trust that there may be forces in the psyche ready to help you.

    In some fairy tales a magic fish is released and grants wishes. Fish also live in schools, a possible hint that it is time for some new learning. A nice thing to do might be engaging the fish, and the dolphins, whales, penguins, etc. in a fantasied conversation where perhaps they have lessons to teach.

    You might like to look at a former post about whales: http://tiny.cc/utImh

    And also note that a more recent post ( http://tiny.cc/wh6qc ) was inviting dreams to be shared, so perhaps it is synchronicity that you came across this older post when you did.

    Finally, please do not take anything I venture as definitive. My main encouragement is to assist you, and other readers, in engaging our inner worlds in a creative manner—toward the greater penguin and whale and fish wisdom that sees us humans as part of, and not observers of, nature.

    Namaste, Bruce

  4. Katrina Says:

    I’m not really sure if I SHOULD leave this and if I CAN leave this but I have had several dreams involving the brutal death of my three year old daughter. Dreams where she is sleeping peacefully in between my husband and I and someone breaks into the room and shoots her in the head. After which, I proceed to beg him to kill me.

    The worst one, possibly, was where I was at some kind of conert venue and I went into the bathroom. I could hear a small girl crying from in a different stall. I asked her if she was okay and she didn’t answer, only proceeded to cry harder. Sensing she had no adult present, I attempted to force open the door. I finally was able to get into the stall she was in and was shocked almost to vomitting by what I saw. The little girl was my daughter and she was COVERED in some strange form on leech. I dropped to my knees and began pulling them off her but every time I got one off, she would pour blood from the wound and another leech would appear from within the opening. They were all over her body. It was so disturbing to see my child terrified and in extreme amounts of pain. That was probably thee most haunting dream I have ever, ever, ever had.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Katrina,

      While dreams can have many different interpretations (and no single interpretation can be declared correct, and there is much room in the mix for the notion that dreams are random and not meaningful at all, although I tend to respect them and pay attention to them) I am happy to offer a few thoughts in the hope that they may bring you more peaceful sleep.

      Firstly, I am sorry you have been haunted by such heartbreaking and disturbing dreams. It’s good you found the courage to share them here, for in the light of day and consciousness we can connect and perhaps facilitate healing.

      As I say, several perspectives might be useful. One view would be that everything in your dream is some aspect of your own psyche (and is not really about your daughter, so much as what your daughter symbolizes: that which you love more than anything, placed in a situation of annihilation).

      In this perspective your inner baby is either killed by your inner Shadow (see multiple posts on this bog about “Shadow” for illumination of this archetype), or abandoned in a cold, heartless public toilet. Leeches are symbolically like mini-babies because they suck at the body the way a baby nurses, and this hints at a parasitic relationship between a host and a parasite; again a forbidden way of thinking about helpless babies.

      The fact that the second dream is at a concert suggests a more collective aspect of this dream (and I do believe that, as a culture, we are tending to neglect our children, particularly if we think of all children as our collective responsibility). The crowd is there for the music, but you alone hear the cries of distress of the child and bear witness to her anguish (I’m not sure your religious beliefs, but bleeding wounds also have a stigmata-like potential as symbols).

      From this archetypal perspective you could consider “active imagination” where you enter the dream, visualize talking to the killer along the lines, “I accept that you are my inner Shadow, why would you kill my inner baby?” You could remember that dreams are like cartoons, where destruction can be undone and fears worked out in a relatively safe manner.

      Jung says that it’s the very things that we CANNOT be conscious of that tend to materialize and meet us as our fate; in this perspective perhaps your child is much safer than you fear. You could also visualize cleaning up the leech-plagued baby and telling her you will protect her and she will be always with you in your protective heart (recognizing her as a part of you, and differentiating this image from your actual child).

      Turning to attachment research, your dream makes me wonder if your mom or dad might have had any unresolved (or perhaps unconscious) trauma that may have left you with vestiges of insecure or disorganized attachment (search this blog for those keywords for insight into their meaning). The key here would be to consider if the dreams create a visual “explanation” for some sort of nameless dread that haunts you deep in your pre-verbal memory.

      This creates a dynamic where you fear something that, in emotional/psychological terms, ALREADY occurred (and is not going to occur). You beg the killer to kill you too (understandable if this were a real situation, but also a way of helping us understand how completely unmanageable your emotions of rage, feared abandonment, isolation may have been as a child when you were younger than eighteen months old, which is when we are capable of forming memories the way we grown-ups think of memory).

      In this perspective, it serves to validate your “inner child” as a way of understanding something akin to infant post-traumatic-stress-disorder. An example related to this was a mother who had nightmares of being grabbed by an arm though her ceiling; when the woman’s own mother told her about an abortion that had not worked, and explained the circumstances (i.e. a war situation) the nightmares went away completely.

      This is not to say that anything like this would have happened to you, but even if your mom or your ancestors had been victims of trauma it has a way of filtering into the psyche of children.

      Finally, if you are in any way prone to anxiety/obsessive worry, there can be the superstitious/irrational fear that our “bad thoughts” might somehow make bad things happen. One way of understanding this is our fear that we are the “bad” person (murderer, abandoner of kids) and therefore must be punished; this in turn ends up to be a defense against the deeper truth, which is that we were once helpless and dependent, and that we do not have the power to make bad things happen with our mere thoughts.

      If there is any obsessive aspect to these thoughts, writing your comment here is a great first step. If you, when anxious, simply assert that your fear is that these terrible events will happen, confronting them in the graphic detail you shared above, after some days the fear will become less powerful (this is especially relevant if you are frequently haunted by the “bad thoughts” when awake). It’s a bit like a fear of the dark: one must sleep in the dark to stop being afraid of the dark through having nothing terrible happen even though we are in the dark.

      Here’s to hoping these ideas bring some light to your own dark places, and that your dreams will be sweet and your life with those you love even sweeter.

      Namaste, Bruce

      • Jen Says:

        Hi Bruce,
        I came accross this website while trying to find a dream meaning.What you sat really makes sense . I was wondering what you think of my dream…..it was a nightmare actually . I will give a brief review of me I am a single mother of a great 13 year
        old 🙂 my dream was awful and this is the second one I remembered(wish I didn’t ) in the dream it’s a few people hanging out in a back yard ( there is more I’m sure if it but this is what I remember) when suddenly the sky darkens and the clouds begin to rotate before you know it a funnel cloud is forming. Everyone runs to take cover in a basement but I can’t find my son!!! After it’s passed I start yelling and look frantically for him friends try to stop me but I finally find him dead under debree . It was AWFUL !! I wake up in tears !!! The other was 6months ago . He goes missing and nobody will help me find him so I search by myself . When I come to the rivers edge I can see a garbage bad floating down the river and all I see is the soles of his nikes then I wake . Both so awful and so scary . I hope to never have another !! I know this thread is old but maybe you will still see this and reply : )

  5. privilegeofparenting Says:

    Hi Jen,

    Thanks for being brave and sharing these nightmares—the key cure for anxiety is confronting it. The key cure for unconsciously hurting each other is being conscious… lovingly conscious.

    You obviously love your kid more than anything, but being a single parent is hard—and being the parent of a teen is hard… and giving to our kid what we might not have gotten (i.e. patience, understanding, gentleness, safety) can also be rather hard.

    Thus these dreams are Shadow dreams, dealing with your own unconscious aggressive aspects (but we all have them, you are not alone—”Luke, I am your father”).

    So on one level, you get frustrated and angry with your kid sometimes, but that’s forbidden to your idealized image of yourself as the all-good mom. Thus your unconscious, but natural, aggression toward your kid comes into your consciousness via a nightmare—reminding you how much you love your kid and treasure him, while slyly winking at you that sometimes you’d like to throw him in the trash or drop a house on him (maybe just so that SOMEBODY, ANYBODY can understand how you actually, secretly, feel when you have to keep a roof over both your heads on your own, or when you feel like trash when he just wants to hang with his friends and is getting too old to overtly be your closest love-relationship… he getting ready to separate hurts the mother deeply, yet must be so, and abandonment fuels our deepest hurt, and thus deepest anger).

    Also, your kid could be interpreted as your own “inner kid” and the dream might be about how, as your kid develops, and you gain more time and mental space to deal with yourself once again, and you now have the great skills developed through parenting, you might now be able to parent the fragments of your childhood where you felt rather like Dorothy in “Wizard of Oz” (hence the twister, the debris… I’d say think of that movie, and its wisdom: you already have the red shoes, you don’t need male authority to make good use of power (Dorothy means love/adore theo/the divine… but not a Father-God behind a curtain, the amazing natural world we all share).

    Finally, the river is an archetypal image as well. If you’re game, read Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and imagine how you, and all of us, are crossing/not yet crossing the great river of consciousness, of life and death, being and non-being.

    I hope this helps, but I certainly wish you well. Jung said, “That which we CANNOT be conscious of, materializes and meets us as our fate.” Thus realizing our Shadow (which tends to be behind us when we face the son/sun) helps us integrate our opposites and love more fully, deeply, safely and with greater joy and trust. Horrible things do happen, but your dream suggests to me that the pain has ALREADY HAPPENED to you, and now you have a golden opportunity to come into the feelings you most yearn for (but we get there sometimes through some dark nights of the soul).

    All Good Wishes, Bruce

  6. melanie Says:

    Hi bruce my sister posted a question and asked me to read this page and the answer you gave her which by the way I was quite impressed!!! But as I was reading the actual website as I neared the bottom I noticed a picture of a light house that I have had reacurring dreams about that are very similar to the picture. in all the dreams its always my little girls father who I am no longer with, we are eather falling off a cliff or driving off a bridge or jumping off of something holding hands and we swim to this light house white and black stripes with red at the top . What startled me was that my 6 year old little girl started drawing pictures of the very same light house and told me that she had a dream that she walking very far and saw the light house that she has been drawing and it scared her because it crumbled and fell into the water!! Do you feel like these dreams could mean something or that they may be connected in some way ?

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Melanie,

      I myself obsessively drew WWI battle scenes as a young child, only to learn much later that my mom’s dad, who died when she was a young girl, had been in the sorts of scenes I was drawing. I sense that kids can unconsciously pick up the images and feelings of parents and whatever they carry.

      In this case I’m struck by the synchronicity of a picture my own son drew echoing one your daughter draws. Here, perhaps, the personal and the universal meet in some sort of synchronicity.

      A potential interpretation at the individual level is the lighthouse as symbol of archetypal Father (phallic, light-giving, knowledge-obsessed, guide for ships, as Self-images, navigating the unconscious waters akin to the Great Mother). Thus the wish to get to the Father (the masculine aspect within the feminine psyche), but to get there WITH a partner, not Thelma and Louise, but lover with opposite sex lover, is a way of the deep Self representing a goal of gnosis, or individuation.

      Yet… at the collective level, we see the wisdom in your little girl: the lighthouse crumbles (along with Wall Street, and other Wizard of Oz Con-artistry) as the post-enlightenment level in the collective has reached its zenith and the rise of the feminine principle (reclaiming by the waters… til human voices wake us and we drown, intuits T.S. Eliot a century ago or so) is thus inevitable.

      Jung said that God was an island and religions various bridges to a common destination. The lighthouse was just a signpost along the way. Perhaps our children will lead us to the place of love and fellowship we all wish to reach, but cannot see nearly as well as they can. Stay tuned to your daughter’s dreams and keep me posted.

      Namaste, Bruce

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