What Our Nightmares About Our Children Could Mean

September 23, 2016

Dear Dreamer,

You are most likely reading these words because you had a nightmare, perhaps some weeks or even months ago now, perhaps last night.

I’m going to try to keep this brief, but please understand that I am trying to write something that could be helpful to you, but also to your fellow parents who have also had a nightmare, just like you.

Although I have written as patiently and clearly as I could that I am no longer able to personally interpret dreams at this time, people keep Googling the topic of nightmares about children and I seem to keep showing up in the search—even though I have not been interpreting dreams here for some time.

Still, when people are scared they apparently don’t read much about what I have to say to other dreamers, or that I’m not interpreting dreams at this time—they just spill their dream into the comment box and hope I will read it and tell them what it means.

Please understand that even though I don’t know you, I would like you to be able to feel better. But after interpreting literally hundreds of dreams, staying up late at nights answering inquiries after working full days, I’m hoping maybe someone else might step up as I step back.

That said, let me sign off on interpreting all these nightmares with some overall ideas that you may consider if you still want help with your dream. You will have to take these ideas, however, and then put in some work on your own.

Firstly, you have written your dream down and thus your own written record of it is now here for you to prompt your memory as you circle back to your dream to try and make some sense of it—for your own self. That’s really the best way to interpret your dreams, to work with the material and think about all the random things it brings back into your mind and then, like a puzzle, try to figure out how these random things fit together.

In general I would suggest that dreams are not reliable predictors of the future and so I would encourage you not to take your dream literally as foretelling a tragedy.

Obviously we all want to keep our kids safe and do what we can to protect them. If your dream is telling you that you are unconsciously worried that you are not keeping your child safe, then it would be appropriate to take action to protect your child.

More likely your nightmare is somehow reminding you of your own past traumas or confronting you with the very feelings that you try to avoid in waking life. If this is true, and you have not yet been able to heal from a past trauma or loss or traumatic loss, then perhaps the “message” or “meaning” of the dream is that you are in pain and you need/deserve some therapy or other way of helping yourself resolve your trauma and find a way to move forward. In this case the “meaning” is “get some help” and if you do get some help and the dream stops recurring, then you can appreciate how your unconscious encouraged you to get better (and this helps your kids by giving them a calmer and more confident and happy parent).

When we talk about the “meaning” of dreams we are looking at the situations or things in the dream through the lens of symbolism. Freud was all about this, and it’s interesting stuff, it just doesn’t have much place in science. It does have a place in art and literature.

So whether or not cigars symbolize penises and staircases symbolize sex (I sort of doubt these arcane symbolic interpretations for you the modern dreamer) one thing all these nightmares have in common is that they are about “bad things” happening to “children.”

Thus “bad things” aren’t symbols so much as they are visual representations of feelings (fear, dread, loss, etc) and in these dreams the Unifying Symbol is The Child.

Maybe our children symbolize EVERYTHING. We love them, they frustrate us, we practically die ourselves at the very thought of harm or death involving our children.

So one umbrella interpretation is that a nightmare about our child or children is a symbolic way of feeling the worst possible feeling we could ever imagine. But we don’t really need a nightmare like this in order to know we love our children.

And if that’s so, what’s the point of a brain that scares us for NO GOOD REASON?

Maybe it’s the same as having a worry brain that torments us, tells us we suck, aren’t good enough, don’t have enough, aren’t safe, loved or lovable. This very brain makes us nervous and unhappy but pretty good at survival. That may be both why there are so many more humans than animals (we won the contest to survive); and it may be why humans have such annoying tendencies for selfishness, greed, cruelty and violence… when we don’t feel safe, loved or respected.

If we do feel safe, loved and respected we tend to be pretty social and nice and creative and industrious and generous (it’s just that we too often feel lonely and inadequate instead of loved and respected… even in our own minds, in our own negative opinions of ourselves, in our sleep when our brains cook up nightmares and cast us as victims).

Thus your nightmare might simply be about feeling scared, horrified, out of control, sad, angry, helpless, abandoned, lonely or whatever horrible emotion lead you to Googling nightmares about children. Whatever we may think about our nightmares, what we know is that they make us feel awful.

And so we want an “answer,” that will make us feel safe and good again. But feelings are not facts any more than dreams are waking reality. We can’t solve the riddle, but we can feel the horror and accept the emotional reality that we cannot love our children without the built in risk that bad things could happen and thus horrible feelings could happen.

This seems like the best guess of all, because even if you had trauma, or the superstitious fear that bad things are going to happen, what you most certainly do not want is to feel bad, mad, scared, helpless, sad, lonely, powerless, etc. And yet your unconscious went and made you feel bad.

And this is deeply human: we don’t want to feel lonely, scared, hurt, etc. And yet our own brains have a way of making us feel bad, scared, inadequate, etc.

This could be understood as our “survival brain.” Our biology wants us to survive, and we do survive by staying scared (running from saber-toothed tigers in prehistoric times) and we do survive by never feeling good enough or like we have enough.

Our survival brain does not care if we are happy, its job is to keep us alive—terrified, unhappy, restless but alive.

Happiness happens in a different part of the brain, the part that does Love, and Gratitude and likes hearing music and likes just hanging out with people who are nice. When that part of the brain is working we are not scared about things that are just dreams, and we know the difference between real threats and passing emotions (like nightmares) that are not real threats.

So… when we get scared, sad, “triggered,” into trauma we do not feel safe and we want solutions to our “problem.” We hope that “knowing the meaning” of the nightmare will give us control over it and then we won’t feel scared.

But feelings, including fear, are not “problems to solve.” They are just feelings.

This is not to say that if you were abused, or your kids are being hurt that we shouldn’t take real steps in the real world to heal, to stop cycles of abuse, to protect children from real harm. We just need to differentiate real threats from the ones our brain made up in the night.

So to conclude, if you want to interpret your dream and you want clues about how to do that feel free to read even a few of the hundreds of interpretations I’ve already offered; this way of thinking is like English Class where we could have a discussion about what a novel “means.” Even then, the author is the best person to ask about the meaning of their book, and mostly they will say that they expressed what they meant with the book, and that their unconscious participated in the making of art.

You are the dreamer and so you are the master artist who made a personal horror film in your mind. What it means is known better to you than to me or anyone else, but if you watch the dream you will see your own brilliant ability to scare the hell out of yourself. Realize that you are good at that, and that keeps you alive.

Try to see the artistry in your dream and you may be willing to feel scared, the way you must be willing to feel scared if you watch a horror movie. It lets out steam, makes you feel alive, or glad to wake up, or leave the movie and stumble back out into the light of day. We all must be willing to feel devastating loss if we are going to let love be alive in our lives. When we attach, we could lose; and losing those we love sucks beyond words.

Finally, there is a teacher of cartooning, Lynda Barry, whom I admire (https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/syllabus) and she encourages us to begin drawing by drawing monsters. The logic goes that since monsters are not real, there is no way to “get it wrong.”

In that spirit, I would invite you to re-read your dream and consider drawing a scene from it, or making it into a comic. You could share it back here if you want, and maybe other readers would find it interesting, or make them smile, or feel less alone.

Words, after all, tend to be literal and when our brain tells us, “you are not safe,” it ends up being processed as a terrifying fact instead of a feeling created by the words in our mind; and dreams are so vivid that they become “real” to us, but only when we are sleeping. They are not “real” in terms of waking life, they just “feel so real.”

Ultimately our waking lives might be like some sort of dream we all dream up together. No one person makes the world alone, but we all do make the world’s nightmare problems, and great moments too.

Perhaps if we could turn our nightmares into art, into laughter, into courage to live better experiences than those we dream up in our darkest moments we might all wake up together to a better world.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I sincerely hope it helps.

And if you want to send a picture, I won’t interpret it but I will be happy to look at how your monsters look to you ☺

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Brittany Council February 1, 2017 at 11:11 am

Hey can you tell me what this dream meant? Thank you

Me and my lil brother was at some place where they was teaching us something it was time for him to go get lunch or something my mom gave me his wallet earlier because he left it so i gave it to him while he we was at this place so he left went to eat came back again some people was teaching us something and this lady was in charge i think i got into a argument with her about what they was teaching than I tried to get my lil brother and leave and they start chasing us than this one man kept chasing us he was in a semi truck (real life i was on the phone before bed talking to a guy friend about him getting his cdl license to drive those truck) he got out the truck start trying to get us I hopped in the truck and start driving off in it keeping a eye on my lil brother while driving than i lost my lil brother so now im looking for him i get to this house now the truck is no longer a truck it’s a bike now i wanted to hide it from the man so i ask this lady with all these kids grown kids could i hide my bike on the side of her house she say yes she was on her way to work so now i start running outside searching for my lil brother asking the lady kids have they seen him and they was being suspicious and lying and not wanting me to go in their house the house was a really big house like they were running some type of crochet business out the back of the house so they like yeah go in see he’s not here but i just knew they were lying so i start running around this big dark house looking for my brother and it’s like so many parts of this house from top to bottom they were chasing me while i was running looking for him so i start calling his name no response than I finally get to this room where i find him they use something to put him to sleep i wake him up and we run out the front door the guys that was chasing me was still in the house and most of them was outback when we get out the house their sister and her friends was across the street the sister tries to run up to me and i just told her something and she left and went back across the street so me and my lil brother is running and he fall because he was so tired i pick him up and start running with him in my arms i ran so far to where a lot of people was and bus stops and this one lady and guy was talking to us about what happen while we are waiting for a bus that I thought should take us home i ask the lady for money for us to get on the bus and for us to eat and i used her phone to call someone which was my boyfriend but kind of ex boyfriend me and him have been into it and i put him out and he has not been at my house straight for about 3 weeks but he come for a day or 2 sometimes so i call him tell him what happen than me and my brother still waiting for the bus im just holding him in my arms crying kissing him and i say im just going to get on any bus the next one that’s coming because I just want to get away from here so we get on the next bus and my phone rings don’t know how i got a phone but I answer and it’s my boyfriend like get off the bus im behind the bus i was so happy he came to pick us up i was crying and kissed him when i got in the car than i woke up. The End

Really don’t know what this dream meant


Bruce February 1, 2017 at 9:30 pm
Micaela March 28, 2017 at 5:19 am

I had a nightmare and so have been up reading all the other posts and comments. I just wanted to say that I feel bad for you Bruce. I see that you explain multiple times that you are done interpretating, and yet these people don’t read into it at all. They just put their dream down in one long run on sentence and expect you to respond.
I definitely got something out of reading the old posts and appreciate that you took the time to try and help.


Bruce March 28, 2017 at 9:23 pm

Hi Micaela,

Thank you so much for actually reading! And also thank you for taking the time to leave your kind comment :)

I do hope you got some ideas that helped you interpret your dream, and send you all best wishes asleep and awake, Bruce


Micaela March 30, 2017 at 7:36 pm

Thank you! I definitely did get some good ideas to think about and spoke to my husband about as well.


Elizabeth June 6, 2017 at 7:45 pm

Wow this post is very insightful and helpful, thanks so much for writing. I just commented on another post about a nightmare I had – I didn’t realize you aren’t still interpreting dreams so feel free not to respond to me. Again, thank you for being so patient and helpful and talking about issues like this. It doesn’t seem like very many people do.


Bruce June 8, 2017 at 10:12 am

Hi Elizabeth,

Again, thank you so much for reading—and I am truly sorry for whatever your nightmares are about. I do encourage you to consider some therapy to explore the question of whether there has been abuse, but even if there has not, if you are suffering anxiety or intrusive thoughts you deserve help to live whatever your best life might look like.

All Best Wishes asleep and awake :)


Jamie September 12, 2017 at 6:52 am

I am having dreams about who killed my son so what does that mean I need some help and answers.


Bruce September 12, 2017 at 9:08 pm
Madison September 15, 2017 at 9:46 pm

Hi again Bruce,

After posting my dream on your initial article, I did indeed continue reading your interpretations of other dreams. Eventually I reached the point where you began posting links to this article in response to requests. I was thinking all the while “wow, this person has been writing essays about dreams for years, it seems exhausting.” I even read some of the articles that grouped similar dream meanings together and offered insight on common themes. First, let me say that I’m an English teacher. When I read this farewell message I couldn’t help but smiling as you likened dream interpretation to the symbolic interpretation of literature. I’m familiar with Frued and the idea of the unconscious in the production of art, so I was figuratively slapping my forehead as you explained these concepts. Indeed, I was in a panic after having my dream. The very first thing I did was begin searching the symbolism of necks, at which time I found an article tersely expressing that dreaming of a broken or cut neck symbolizes impending doom or great misfortune. This had the opposite calming effect that you so astutely identified as the drive behind my midnight search, and so I next discovered your initial post. I’m glad that I took the time to read more (as I’m endlessly parroting to students in my waking hours) and discover some closure concerning my vivid nightmare.

It’s difficult for me to think of my son as representing myself, as we are opposing genders. Perhaps I might interpret my dream as acknowledging my unconscious fear that my dedication to helping my students is interfering with my role as a guardian and motherly protector. Maybe I feel that I could have taught him more self control rather than pretending to be an expert in an unfamiliar subject like dance. I’m not sure of the symbolism of the decent into a lower plane in my dream, though I might guess that unconsciously I view teaching as a higher intellectual calling than the instinctual duties of motherhood. It seems like a crass idea to put into words. I hope you don’t mind functioning as a sounding board as I work through this problem–I can’t begin to imagine what I might literally draw from this vision, I would prefer to let the vivid details sink away in my memory.

Thank you for helping so many people and remaining dedicated to this project for so long…I can go back to sleep now.


Bruce September 16, 2017 at 10:16 pm

Hi Madison,

Thank you so much for reading more deeply, and for communicating back from that place.

Two quick thoughts… “the lower realm” could be the deeper unconscious, which is not necessarily “bad” so much as “dark” meaning obscure, perhaps needing to come into the light of consciousness.

The “disobedience” could thus be your own inner truth, civil disobedience in these politically murky times, stirred up by the intensity of parenting (and relating to the child aspects within yourself, the memories of whatever life was when you were the age your child is now).

Finally the “high energy” and the “dance” could also signify relationship between aspects of self; it takes two to dance and if one changes the other is affected by that change.

PS thank you for being a teacher

Wishing you sweet dreams and waking life as well :)


Lorna September 30, 2017 at 4:46 pm

Hello Bruce,
I read the page you directed to after first posting my dream. I can see now that I am holding on to fears and have always been a bit of a worrier when it comes to my adult son for all the typical reasons a parent might feel concerned for their safety — he is gay, he has mild Tourette’s and was counseled he’d probably not need medication because of this, he (still) smokes, he drinks more than he needs to (both of which are stress releases I am guessing with the tension from his Tourette’s however). I am a single parent and have raised him alone. I am white, his dad is Native/Afr.-Am( and deceased recently). Sadly, my son has never had a relationship with his dad or even met him or heard from him personally. He is a college grad and has a great career started in business. My dreaming about his being attacked while doing a kindly deed helping a toddler get back to her family out of harm’s way disturbed me greatly however, as I felt it symbolized a group act of hatred and bigotry in my dream. So I know what my demons are…I wonder how much discrimination he must face one a daily basis if any. My stumbling block is finding the right opportunity to express my interest in his life and activities. My son is a workaholic and has little time to spare with me. I understand that, but additionally he also does not enjoy ‘deep’ discussions or really open up with me. He’s always been this way. The dream it seems is my frustration from these things I’ve described to you. I think it means I need to move on with my life?? He WAS my purpose for 29 years. Now I am alone at home and I have to let go? I wonder if I am correct. I believe so. Thank you for your column!


Bruce September 30, 2017 at 7:08 pm

Hi Lorna,

Thank you for reading and doing the work on your dream and sharing with me and other future readers of these threads of comments.

One additional thought is the image of your child (most beloved aspect of yourself) trying to rescue a symbol of your own two year old self; this implies your possible guilt that if your child is asked to take care of you or protect you it puts him at risk of an oncoming train (as you intuit, the collective hatred of the group).

This dream has collective and individual resonance, so perhaps you can find some way to do some inner-work to help heal the child part of you and maybe if enough of us do that the group will become more compassionate and less ignorant/hateful and destructive.

I’m not sure if it would be useful, but some parents of grown children have found my parenting book to be healing for themselves, and it might give deeper insights into your son’s needs for individuation from you, and give you support to accurately understand his experience and reflect this to him in a way that could allow you to have a more grown-up sort of reciprocal relationship in the future.

Hope this makes sense. All Best Wishes no matter what :)



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