10 September 2003

Children and nightmares

Like most small children, Theresa occasionally wakes up crying from nightmares. We are told that these are perfectly normal between the ages of 2 and 6. Indeed when she was only two she woke up in the middle of the night and, to our surprise, was able to tell us what she had dreamt: that someone was putting her in too hot bath water. Since then she has recounted to us the content of other dreams. Initially they revolved around garbage trucks, of which she had a mild phobia. Recently they have involved being washed down the bathtub drain or being eaten by a shark.

I used to wonder at what age we should tell Theresa about the reality of death. To be sure, there will still come a time when we will have to answer her questions about it. But I now believe that a child old enough to experience the possibility of personal harm in a nightmare already has a pretty good sense of what death is about.

I recall the nightmares I myself had as a preschooler. The most vivid involved being a Jack-like person (of beanstalk fame) in the giant's castle and having my head dashed against the floor by the giant. This one isn't all that difficult to figure out. It is simply scary to be so small and vulnerable in an adult world, having your every decision made for you, and having so little control over yourself, much less over the world around you.

In later years I would still have unpleasant dreams, but they did not compare to the sheer terror I experienced in my dreams back then.

However, after Theresa's premature birth dreams approaching the status of nightmares returned in a new guise. While she was in hospital during those first ten weeks in 1998 and '99, Nancy was plagued by nightmares, while I was not. After Theresa came home from hospital, Nancy's nightmares stopped and mine began. One particularly distressing one had someone dangling a baby upside down by his feet out the window of an airborne plane. I've had other dreams that I am reluctant even to call to the surface of consciousness, much less to blog about.

What this all adds up to is that many, if not most, nightmares seem to revolve around childhood vulnerability. When you are a small child, you have nightmares. When you have a small child of your own, you have nightmares.

Almighty God and Father, protect the small children you have given us. Keep them in your loving embrace, that we, their parents, may be to them the vessels of your protection and care. Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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