Talking Dreams with your Teen

The next time your teenager arrives at the breakfast table mumbling about that “weird” dream they had the night before, you might take it as an opportunity to talk. While teenage life may have (temporarily) transformed your otherwise chatty and affectionate child into someone less than chatty and affectionate, the good news is that dream talk can provide a non-threatening even interesting occasion for communication. If you would like to participate more in the workings of your teen’s inner life, try having a conversation about their dreams.

Research suggests that the same hormonal surges responsible for the emotional and physical changes you observe in your teenager are also impacting their dream life. In fact, from the moment they hit puberty their dreams show marked difference from those of their pre-adolescent years. It’s no secret that teens spend a great deal of time sleeping. As a result they have more dreams. These dreams tend to be more vivid and “wacky” (weird) than those had in earlier years. Most important for parents and teens to realize, however, is that teenage dreams seem largely concerned with processing the various challenges and changes of adolescent life.

Even as their waking life is crammed full of conflicting emotions, expectations, and desires their dreams are attempting to sort through it all and help shape them into the individuals they will become. Dreams let teens know how they feel about themselves, their family and friends, school, and life in general. They tell them how they feel about their changing bodies and about their changing roles within the family and in society at large. In their dream life teens can try on new skills, experience emotions freely, learn about their own fears and anxieties, and, above all, begin to experience a sense of self that is separate from parents, authority figures, and even peers.

One of the best ways to get your teen to begin opening up about a dream is to ask them “what do you think that dream is about?” You may be surprised to hear how much insight your teen has into the messages and meanings of their dreams. Dreams speak in the language of fairy tales and poetry. They access a part of our brain that is non-rational. Because teens naturally have greater access to the more creative sides of their minds, they are often quite good at grasping the metaphor contained within a dream. Most teens, for example, are likely to recognize that a dream in which they are on stage unsure of their lines might have something to do with feeling insecure about the “role” they are playing. Similarly, they can quickly grasp that a dream about having a stomache ache or needing to vomit might have to do with swallowing something that now needs to come out.

Other examples of themes that commonly appear in teenage dreams include:
• being chased or attacked. Often these dreams suggest feeling an emotional threat in waking life. Clues to who or what might be making a teen feel afraid can be found in the details of the dream (i.e., what does the attacker look like, who does he/she remind them of, how does the teen respond in the dream, etc.)
• appearing naked in public. Naked dreams convey a sense of vulnerability. For insight into what area of life a teen might be feeling too “exposed” consider the setting of the dream (i.e., are they naked at school work, home, etc.)
• discovering a treasure or talent you did not know you have. These dreams usually serve a supportive role in a teen’s inner life. It is as if some part of them is saying “you have more resources than you know.”
• having a relationship with someone famous. Being romantically linked with a celebrity allows a teenager the opportunity to “try on” some of the qualities represented by that individual. These dreams let a teen know that they would like to have more of a relationship with whatever traits they associate with their dream star.

In the end, there is no right way for either parent or teen to interpret a dream. The value is not in getting it right, but in having the opportunity to explore feelings and thoughts that might otherwise not see the light of day. Allowing a teenager to muse out loud about their nighttime dramas gives them the chance to get to know themselves better. With any luck, it just might give you, their parent, a similar chance. The next time your teen mentions having had a dream, ask them what they think it might be about.

They just might tell you.

Barbara Platek M.A. is a Jungian psychotherapist in Ithaca, New York

© 2006 • Barbara Platek, Jungian Psychotherapist • 119 East Buffalo St, Ithaca, NY, 14850 • (607) 273-4610