Parenting Isn't For The Faint Of Heart
Learn what they mean and how to handle them.
When you wake up from a dream that’s particularly frightening or anxiety-provoking, it can be tough to ease yourself back into a restful sleep. Stress dreams are common, but for parents, having bad dreams about your child can be especially upsetting. Dreaming about your child getting hurt or being in danger can feel so real and even traumatic, but experts agree that it can be helpful to learn what bad dreams about your child mean and how you can cope when they happen.
"It's certainly common for parents to have dreams that involve risks to the safety of their children,” Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, a sleep psychologist and a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “I see this as the brain's way of trying to predict and eliminate these risks, which is certainly normal for a parent," she says. Parents may commonly dream about their child getting sick, lost, or hurt, which can be frightening and even downright unsettling.
What to do if you wake up from a bad dream about your child
If you wake up from a bad dream about your child, there are several strategies to try to handle your anxious feelings in the moment. “Start by taking some deep breaths,” licensed marriage and family therapist Heidi McBain says.
Once you’ve caught your breath, if you still feel shaken, you can try to journal or write down the dream, even giving it a different ending. “After this, read what you have written aloud and repeat this process before falling asleep,” licensed psychologist Dr. Carolyn Rubenstein says. “This helps keep sleep from being associated with negative thoughts or feelings and can help train your brain to create happier scenarios.”
Schneeberg also suggests going into another room upon waking from the dream and focusing on a relaxing activity until you feel tired enough to return to bed. "This helps to keep the bed from becoming associated with negative emotions, and keeps it associated with relaxation and sleep only," she says. If you have a partner, it can also be helpful to talk to them in the moment for reassurance.
Can dreams traumatize you?
“A nightmare can traumatize someone, but the good news is that the trauma is short-lived,” Rubenstein says. “Dreams typically occur during REM sleep, making them feel incredibly life-like, similar to lucid dreaming.” If thoughts of your dream pop up during the day, activities like reading, getting outside, or listening to music can also help distract you. “You also might want to connect with your child when you awake to reassure yourself that all is well,” she says.
If you continue to think about your dream long after waking or they’re reoccurring, you may need to seek professional help. “Bad dreams can feel terrifyingly real, especially if they happen night after night,” McBain says. “Therapy can be a helpful place to get support and help to work through what's underneath the trauma so you can feel better and back to yourself soon.”
To help you make sense of these types of nightmares — and give you a little peace of mind — read on to get an idea of what the most common bad dreams about your child mean.
What does it mean to dream about your child drowning?
While this is a very real fear for many parents in day-to-day life, it is also a top category of nightmares for parents. “Bad dreams about your kids is often an anxiety response,” McBain says. “If there's heightened fear during the day that isn't processed, sometimes this anxiety can show up at night in the form of bad dreams and nightmares about something happening to your kids.”
What does it mean to dream about your child being abused or traumatized?
This particular type of dream where you picture your child being abused or traumatized in some way is one that is hard to even put into words. Nobody wants to see bad things happen to their children, but during a dream state, you might picture a form of abuse occurring for several reasons. This could include having experienced abuse yourself at some point, seeing it in a movie or television show, or have felt the feeling of being abused even if no physical abuse has occurred. “It's also possible that past traumatizing childhood events make you dream this way,” Rubenstein says. “This event could be subconscious, reminding you of the danger you faced.”
What does it mean to dream about your child being in danger?
Whether they’re trapped in a burning building with no way out or being chased by a giant grizzly bear, a dream where your child is in immediate danger — especially if you’re not able to help them — is one of the scariest nightmares for parents. “It's common for parents to have dreams that involve their children being in danger,” Rubenstein says. “You deeply love your child, and you fear losing them. These dreams happen because our brains try to predict and eliminate this risk.”
What does it mean to dream about being a terrible parent?
A dream where you let your child do something risky like climb up a utility pole in a lightning storm or hurt someone without intervening can make you feel like the worst parent ever. Dreams about being an incompetent parent can stem from feelings of self-doubt and societal pressure, Rubenstein explains. “As a parent, it's your job to protect your child,” she says. “In addition to losing control, you may be fearful you can no longer protect your child from the world's dangers.”
What does it mean to dream about hurting your child?
Dreaming about hurting your child does not mean that you want to hurt them or even that someone else wants to, Rubenstein says. “A dream can also represent the emotional pain that you're experiencing. If you are feeling hurt, rejected, or betrayed by someone, this could be reflected in your dreams,” she explains.
Despite the fact that you know in your heart of hearts that you would never under any circumstances hurt your child, you can’t control what you dream. Having bad dreams about your kids, including hurting your own child, can be an anxiety response, says McBain. “If you're in postpartum, this is also a way that postpartum anxiety can show up,” she explains. Postpartum anxiety and depression are common and treatable, but a break from reality in which a new mom wants to hurt her baby could signal something more serious like postpartum psychosis, which requires immediate emergency medical treatment.
Though they’re completely normal, bad dreams about your child can be terrifying and even feel traumatic. If you’re having trouble sleeping or keep replaying your dreams during waking hours, don’t be afraid to reach out for support to help you cope.
Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, sleep psychologist, Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine
Heidi McBain, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C, a licensed marriage and family therapist
Dr. Carolyn Rubenstein, licensed psychologist in Boca Raton, Florida
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