My last article in this series (12/12/13) pointed out that a major psychological task of childhood is the development of a strong ego. A strong ego should not be confused with a “big ego,” egocentricity, willfulness, or arrogance. “Ego strength” is a psychological term that describes the resilience and structural integrity of the conscious mind/identity. A person with a healthy ego is able to tolerate frustration and negotiate life’s challenges with resourcefulness and optimism. A person with a weak ego, on the other hand, is more likely to become overwhelmed and demoralized by the demands of life.
One way that the psyche develops a strong ego in children is by providing dreams that challenge them to defend and stand up for themselves. Dreams of scary animals and monsters are quite common among young children. The following are examples: “A tiger was in my bed and wouldn’t leave.” “A rhinoceros was in my bed and tried to bite me.” “I was at a playground with my brother when some bears came and started to destroy everything.” “Sixteen monsters were chasing us. They had spiky legs that poked you, and their faces, necks, and chests were covered with feathers.” “Werewolves were outside my window trying to get in.” “A goblin with sharp teeth and claws came out of my closet and tried to attack me.”
One of the first tasks of childhood is learning to tame one’s passions and instinctual impulses. Animals are frequently used as symbols of our instinctual drives. In their negative aspect, they may symbolize things such as anger, greed, aggression, and jealousy. Monsters often contain a mixture of human and animal features. Thus, they also represent undeveloped and undisciplined instinctual energies. To battle and tame these creatures is, symbolically, to harness and transform primitive energies so that they can be used in the service of the larger personality. Untamed, such impulses tend to bowl over the ego, giving rise to childish and/or destructive behaviors.
The Greek myth of “Heracle’s Twelve Labors” is an insightful allegory regarding the process of personality development. The story begins tragically as the powerful young Heracles kills his family during a night of wild drunkenness. [This event indicates that although he was a grown man physically, Heracles was still a child when it came to the management of his passions.] As punishment, he is condemned by King Eurystheus to seven years of servitude. During these years he is given increasingly difficult tasks to fulfill, most of them involving battle with dangerous animals, e.g., a giant lion, a wild boar, flesh eating birds, the mad bull of Crete. [Symbolically, life is challenging Heracles to wrestle with his animal nature so that its wisdom and energy can be harnessed and channeled into life-giving pursuits rather than destructive ones.] Heracles’ last two labors are to obtain the jeweled belt from the queen of the Amazons, and apples from a magical tree located at the “end of the world.” In order to accomplish these tasks, however, he must battle a thousand angry female warriors for the belt, and a dragon that never sleeps for the apples. The belt is a symbol of the feminine (his anima), and the apples, as in the biblical Genesis story, symbolize consciousness. The message of the myth is that personality development–growth in consciousness and deepened relationship to one’s soul–involves battle with regressive and resistive forces in one’s inner and outer life. Although often painful to endure, such battles can be good for us; we tend to more fully appreciate those things that we have sacrificed and struggled for.
A young boy had a series of frightening dreams involving sharks. One of them went as follows: “I am swimming in a lake when two sharks come after me. I swim as fast as I can to get away from them, and wake up before they get to me.” Sharks are cold-blooded predators. They usually symbolize regressive forces within a dreamer’s life that would suppress his spirit and development. Examples might include self-critical thoughts and feelings of worthlessness, or hurtful and dispiriting interactions with peers, teachers, or family. In this case, the boy had an older brother who picked on him and made him feel bad about himself. His parents were able to address the situation from several angles. First, they intervened with regard to the older brother’s behavior. Second, they helped the young boy recognize the falseness of his brother’s comments. Third, they taught him how to both ignore and, alternatively, stand up to his brother. Throughout the process they worked with him using the imagery of his dreams.
One way to help a child deal with the frightening people, animals, and other creatures in their dreams is by re-enacting portions of the dreams. In the example above, the father had his son pretend to be a shark while he playfully took on the role of a frightened swimmer. This made the boy laugh and reduced some of his fearfulness. In another enactment, the father played the aggressive shark while his son fought back using the kicks and punches he had been learning in karate. Through this process the boy’s dreams became less frightening and his behavior within them more assertive. Here is the final dream of the series: “I was at the ocean when a shark swam up and tried to scare me. But I kept my eyes on the horizon and wasn’t scared. Then more sharks came and tried to scare me with their numbers, but I again focused on the horizon and wasn’t scared. Later in the dream I taught another boy how not to be scared by sharks.” Focusing on the horizon symbolizes the establishment of a stable perspective. No longer was the dreamer so easily thrown off balance by his brother’s hurtful comments or the negative thoughts that scavenged about his own unconscious.
In addition to therapeutic re-enactments of dreams, children can be helped to compose a story or draw pictures in response to frightening dream events. The story or picture(s) should include successful and empowering responses to the dilemma or threat presented in the dream. It is helpful that children be allowed to discover their own solutions whenever possible. However, if they seem stuck or overwhelmed by the task, then it may be necessary to offer some suggestions. Sometimes they may even be able to dialogue with the dream creature, i.e., ask the monster why he wants to scare them, or the bear how they can be friends. If you can convey a sense of confidence in their abilities, and a genuine curiosity and playfulness with the process, you will be giving them a great gift. A child that has developed an open and fearless relationship with his or her unconscious typically carries a similar orientation to life.