I dreamed that my husband didn’t recognize me. We were the same age we are now and I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and I went in for a kiss and he recoiled, politely and with great care. And then he smiled at me, pried my fingers off his arm, and turned back to whatever faceless person he had been talking to.
It was that smile that did it. It’s the smile he gives people when he wants to get away from them, but can’t, because he’s so nice. He had been nice to me, and when I woke up I resented him for it. How dare he use the fake smile on me? And for the rest of the day I let him know it. I was proper and distant, like a well-behaved roommate or Stepford wife, and by that night we were in a full-fledged fight because of a something that never even happened.
The thing is, I knew it was a dream. It was ridiculous to think that he would do that to me in real life. I’d birthed his three children, so chances are he’d kiss me on the mouth in public. But the feelings wouldn’t go away. They crossed their arms and nodded to themselves like they’d finally shown me the light. I know. I don’t need Freud to explain all the knotted insecurities in that one.
There’s a reason dreams follow us in to our days. According to an article in NY Magazine, “dreams are the number-one way in which we process emotions, particularly emotional tensions that we are experiencing in waking life.”
Maybe it was his longer hours at work. Maybe it was the fact that it was the tail end of summer and I was done with the free-for-all days. Whatever the reason, I was clearly feeling forgotten, even if it wasn’t true. And it makes sense that I would carry it with me into my waking hours. A study in the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that, depending on the emotional intensity of the dream, the mood can stay in an altered state the following day or even longer.
I see this in my kids, too. I see them wake from a nightmare about being lost in the grocery store or unable to find us in a crowd and they hug my legs like cling-wrap for the rest of the day. That feeling of aloneness is hard to shake.
But there are ways to help your kids combat the lingering effects of bad dreams so they don’t ruin their days and maybe even identify what the dreams are all about in the first place. Here are a few ways to help bring your kids back to reality:
1 | Re-write the ending
We know dreams aren’t true, but the best way to remind your kids of this is to have them re-write the ending. Let them write down, or tell you, everything they can remember, detail by detail, until they get to the end … and then change it. Help them to fix it and make it as it should be, like righting an overturned table. They’ll tell you how it should have ended, probably with everyone safe and sound and eating ice cream on an island, and be happier for it. That’s how I’d end every one of mine.
2 | Do a little pre-sleep self-care
If psychologist Michale Breus is correct and we tend to “dream about whatever it is that is going on in our lives as we are falling asleep,” then it would make sense to do a little pre-sleep prep. Sit with your kids and meditate. Pray. Deep breathe. Say a few positive aphorisms. Turn on the sound machine and turn down the thermostat. Make a calm environment where they can put their minds at ease before bed.
3 | Talk until there’s nothing left to say
There’s a reason people pay good money to see a psychologist and it’s not just to sit in a quiet room away from kids, although that is an incentive. Hearing yourself voice your fears makes them smaller. This is true for kids too. Talking it out releases the emotion that built up in the night and helps them put it in its proper place. Help them talk to you, your spouse, their sibling, a best friend – anyone they can trust to be a sounding board and then let them sound away.
4 | Identify the real-life trigger
Chances are, the primary emotion in the bad dream is one that has carried over from real life. Like following the strand of lights until you get to the knot, identifying the culprit can be the final undoing that will give them some rest. Help them to make a list of the main stressors in their daily lives and the emotions that go along with them. This is especially important if they’ve been having a recurring nightmare. Somewhere in there is a knot that needs unpicking and you can help them find it.
Bad dreams don’t have to ruin good days. Let them be what they are: the fiction that points to a truth your kids can’t see clearly when they’re awake. Hopefully, once they do see it, they can move on to better things.