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Children's Dreams: Understanding the Most Memorable Dreams & Nightmares of Childhood

My younger brother and I are in the back seat of our family’s van, parked on a steep hill. At the base of the hill is a lake or some other body of water. The ocean? My mother has stepped out of the car and she is at the top of the hill. She is picking apples off a tree filled with the fruit. And then the van starts to roll backward. My mother continues to pick apples while, inside the van, I am panicked and desperately trying to figure out how to get to the front seat, to get to the brakes and thus prevent our seemingly inevitable watery demise.

Then I wake up, my heart racing and my sheets soaked in sweat.

The dream first appeared when I was somewhere around six or seven years old. It is a dream that continued to haunt me for years, stalking me throughout my childhood, a recurrent nightmare that remained unchanged. In it, my mother never notices that we are rolling backward, my father is never there, and we never reach the lake at the bottom.

“It was only a dream,” my mother would say, rubbing my back and trying to soothe me to sleep. How many of us heard that as a child or have said that to our children in an attempt to calm little ones? But while at two in the morning quiet reassurance may be the most prudent (and sleep-preserving) response, dream researchers Kelly Bulkeley and Patricia Bulkley (whose names are spelled slightly differently) propose that those childhood dreams merit more than dismissal.

Their new book, they write, offers an approach to interpreting these dreams that is “scientifically grounded, easy to apply, and capable of highlighting new power of creativity emerging in a child’s life.”

Children’s Dreams combines the work of Carl Jung with present-day neuroscience and evolutionary theory. Jung, a psychiatrist and early acolyte of Sigmund Freud, developed his own approach that included a focus on childhood dreams. “The dream,” Jung proposed, “is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul.” Bulkeley and Bulkley begin their book with a basic overview of Jung’s work. They lay out some of his central concepts such as the interaction between the collective unconscious, culture, and archetypes.

They also delve into Jung’s understanding of dreaming as a “nightly revival of the unconscious mind,” with a focus on what he called big dreams, those “rare, extremely vivid and highly memorable dreams [that] deserve special attention as expressions of the deepest powers of the unconscious mind.” The authors then move into more recent research and how newer concepts might be integrated with the Jungian approach.

This sets up the heart of the book, which is the analysis of actual dreams of children that have emerged in early, middle, or later childhood. Organized by age group in order to better demonstrate how dream content changes with time and developmental stage, each chapter demonstrates the practical application of the principles described in the beginning two chapters.

Some content is from adults recalling poignant dreams of childhood while other sections come from children themselves. Rather than exhaustive examination, the authors offer a “more focused kind of analysis, concentrating on aspects of meaning that relate to basic instinctual concerns shared by virtually all humans.” Even for the simplest of dreams, the authors offer a rich perspective. They repeatedly demonstrate that, viewed through the proper lens, a dream can be much more than a simple series of seemingly random events. The final chapter focuses on the importance of cultivating a healthy childhood imagination and how exploring the content of dreams can support this.

The big dreams of childhood, Jung noted, are “the richest jewel in the treasure of the soul.” For those wishing to learn to uncover these treasures, Bulkeley and Bulkley’s book can offer tools for discovery. Their book will be most satisfying to those starting out on their journey into dream investigation, as it is best suited for the beginner rather than an experienced clinician.

If you do have experience in the analysis of dreams or are looking for more extensive or technical discussion, you may find the book enjoyable but basic. The text is approachable and the dreams are engaging, making it appropriate even for those without a formal background in psychology.

Children’s Dreams: Understanding the Most Memorable Dreams and Nightmares of Childhood

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, August 2012

Hardcover, 170 pages


Children's Dreams: Understanding the Most Memorable Dreams & Nightmares of Childhood

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Megan Riddle

APA Reference
Riddle, M. (2016). Children's Dreams: Understanding the Most Memorable Dreams & Nightmares of Childhood. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 May 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 May 2016
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