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