Nightmares and What to Do about Them
Nightmare Emergency: Being Paralyzed or Stuck
Description Child reports that he or she was trapped, unable to move; the child may be unable to scream or breathe in the dream; may feel terrorized.
The circumstances vary: being buried alive; being caught in something; being tied up; being barely able to run, with legs heavy as lead. The dream of being stuck or trapped may occur prior to or even just after awakening (sleep paralysis).
Frequency: Few children report this dream; it does not occur often for those who do dream about being stuck or paralyzed. The dream can be a serious indicator of emotional turmoil. Sleep paralysis may have a physiological basis.
Usual meanings: “I feel trapped”; “I feel unable to make a move.” This dream is rarely based on an actual experience, although that may be the case if a child has been locked in a closet or chest, trapped in a cave-in, and so forth.
The dream may also be evoked by experiences of “sleep paralysis,” a condition in which the victim feels fully awake yet is unable to move. It usually occurs during the period of falling asleep or of waking up, and may endure for several minutes, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations. One type of sleep paralysis is caused by potassium depletion (needed for muscle contraction). It may be brought on by high intake of alcohol or high carbohydrate meals, and may occur in adolescent males. Other types of sleep paralysis are dominant inherited traits.
1. Describe the dream.
- Tell me about it.
- What happened?
- What happened next?
- What did you do?
- How did the dream end?
2. Reflect the child’s feelings.
If child has spontaneously mentioned his or her emotions while describing the dream, reflect them. If not, elicit them. Comment as appropriate.
- How did you feel?
- What was the worse part?
- Did you feel differently when…(a change occurred in the dream)?
- You felt scared.
- You felt helpless.
- You felt as though there was nothing you could do.
- You felt trapped.
- The worst part was…(when you realized you were stuck, when your legs felt heavy and you could barely move, and so forth).
3. Express reassurance.
- Sometimes people have this dream.
- It can be quite alarming.
- I’m sure you’re happy it didn’t happen in the waking world.
- Most people don’t know we can do something about dreams of this kind.
- (If based on actual experience of being trapped) We can’t change what happened, but you can change your dream about it.
- You know, you can change that dream.
- It may seem impossible but you could get help.
- Who could you get? Who is strong?
- What could you do if you were actually trapped? (If tied up, could knock the telephone off the table, push buttons with the nose, call for help.)
- People who are actually paralyzed still can do things with their nose, mouth, or feet. Some of them paint pictures by holding the brush in their mouths; some write letters on a computer by moving their heads to activate it.
- (If child says he or she tried to scream but couldn’t make a sound) You don’t need to yell to get help in a dream. Do it another way. Use ESP, send a message with your mind.
- Cast a magic spell.
- We can do anything in a dream if we remember to do it and want it hard enough.
- If you can move your fingers, make a knife appear; cut the ropes; dream a ladder is near you to climb out of the pit; get a rope.
- (If child had an episode of sleep paralysis) You can always move your eyes. Look around actively; look up, down, right, left, scan all over. Blink your eyes. Concentrate on moving your face; wriggle your nose or little finger. Once you move part of your body, the paralysis will be broken.
- (If you are an adult who suffers from sleep paralysis, explain your condition to your bedmate and other family members. They can help you by speaking to you, or touching you lightly. Stimulation of the external body breaks the sensation of paralysis.)
- That was a great idea you had about how to cope with being paralyzed/trapped in your dream.
- Will you draw me a picture of the dream?
- Show me how it will be when changed for the better.
- Could you invent a poem or story about that dream?
4. Align allies; take action.
A five-year-old boy dreamed he was stuck in a closet and couldn’t get out. He was scared and thought nobody would save him, but then Superman appeared and carried him out.
5. Make a drawing or some other creative product from the dream.
A four-year-old boy dreamed he was screaming repeatedly for his mother without being able to make a sound. He could have redreamed that he “called” her with his mind and she heard him and rescued him. Under the direst dream circumstances it is always possible to fantasize a deliverance.
6. Seek a long term solution.
Read relevant stories.
Read stories to the child that portray the ability to escape from entrapping situations. People who have escaped from cave-ins provide a model of success. One man, whose wife often dreamed that she had fallen into a deep pit, taught her mountain climbing skills while she was awake. This resource helped her get out of the pits in her dreams.
Fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty may be helpful. She was immobilized for 100 years, but lived to marry her prince.
Consult pediatrician or counselor, as needed
If your child suffers episodes of sleep paralysis you will want professional advice. You may also wish to research information about the condition at your local library, medical college, or on your home computer.
Obviously if your child has had a frightening waking experience with being trapped, you will want guidance in overcoming the fear resulting from it.
If your child has not had an episode of sleep paralysis, and has not been traumatically trapped in waking life, dreams about being trapped are a metaphor. What situation is making your child feel caught? The nightmare of being trapped or paralyzed may be a response to a temporary situation, but if such dreams persist, professional help is desirable.
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