Nightmares and What to Do about Them
Nightmare Emergency: Taking an Examination
Description: Child reports that he or she had to take a test at school; has feelings of anxiety or frustration. There are many versions of the nightmare: the child cannot find the right room; the test has already begun; the questions are unfamiliar; child does not know answers; never read the required books; the time is up too soon; the child won’t pass or graduate, and so forth.
Frequency: Bad dreams about taking tests are uncommon among American children; those who have them may dream about this topic periodically. American adults, however, have this dream fairly frequently, regardless of whether they graduated years earlier.
More children in cultures with extreme examination pressure, such as Japan and Great Britain, are likely to have this dream, and to experience it more often.
Usual meanings: “I feel unprepared” (for any waking life situation); “I feel as if I am being ‘tested’ by some person or situation”; “I fear I will fail.” (If facing actual test) “I am concerned that I will not do well on the upcoming examination.”
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 during the dream, reflect them. If not, ask about 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 panicked.
- You felt certain you would fail.
- You felt helpless.
- The worst part was…(when you couldn’t find the room, when your time was up, when you realized you didn’t know the answers, and so forth).
3. Express reassurance.
- Lots of people have this dream once in a while.
- (If appropriate) People dream of this, especially if they have a test coming soon.
- You still have time before the test; we’ll talk about what can be done to prepare better.
- Sometimes people have that dream when they feel they are being tested in some other area, like performing well in sports, or meeting an important person.
- Most people don’t know it’s possible to change the dream.
4. Align allies; take action.
- (If facing test) Sounds as though you might be worried about that upcoming exam.
- What could we do to help you prepare better (Get up early; practice quiz; have parent drive child to school to allow more time.)
- Sometimes this kind of dream, even though it’s alarming, can help us practice for the real thing.
- People sometimes dream the worst thing imaginable to prepare them; then the waking event can go more smoothly.
- (If not facing test) Suppose you did have a big test, what could you do to get ready? (Study hard, get someone who knows the answers to help you practice, and so forth.)
- You can do the same things in your dream.
- It may seem impossible but you also could get supernatural help.
- Who could you get? Who is wise? Who knows all the answers? (Solomon, the encyclopedia, a wizard, a crystal ball, and so on.)
- You can have anyone help you that you want in a dream.
- Tuck them in your pocket.
- Use a mental computer.
- (For adults) Some situation must be making you feel “tested” at the moment. Do you know what it is?
- Solving the situation in the dream will help prepare you to deal better with the waking situation.
- (For children and adults) If you ever have that dream again, be sure to get some help. It’s your dream and you can have it happen any way you want.
A little boy who dreamed about trying desperately to answer his test questions when the bell went off might have had the teacher announce that the whole class could have a half hour extra. He could have dreamed of himself finishing his answers with each question, and so practiced for his waking life trials. A magical creature could have handed him the answers all complete, just in time.
5. Make a drawing or some other creative product from the dream.
- You had a good idea about coping with taking a test in your dream.
- Will you draw me a picture of the dream?
- Show me how it will be different with the better ending.
- Could you make up a story or poem about that dream?
6. Seek a long term solution
Provide successful models
Stories in which a child succeeds in learning or discovering something that others have missed can inspire a need to achieve despite difficulties. The story of Champollion’s deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics, for instance, shows how a childhood ambition can lead to significant accomplishments.
Provide relevant toys
Playing school with dolls and small books can help children work out anxieties about test taking. You can also make games of learning and testing with computers.
Consult with a professional, as needed
To learn efficiently, some children require alternate forms of teaching to the usual visual approach, such as auditory and tactile methods. Reading specialists, tutors, and special schools can help.
Some very bright people experience “examination anxiety,” a state of panic so severe that they are unable to function when tested. Such people can benefit from counseling or therapy, especially “desensitization,” so that they can perform at their level of knowledge during testing.
Therapy may also be beneficial for people who feel “tested” by a great number of situations in their environment. They can be helped by building confidence in themselves and acquiring social skills.
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