The previous articles of this series examined different aspects of the psyche and their representation in our dreams. This article and the next take a closer look at the dreams of children. Although the information shared in the earlier articles applies to children’s dreams, modifications must sometimes be made due to differences in the psychology of children and adults.
Jungian psychology describes the ego as the gatekeeper of consciousness. When we say “I did this,” or “I believe that,” we are speaking from the standpoint of the ego. It is our “I-ness” that provides a sense of identity and continuity to the personality. In dreams, our life path is sometimes symbolized as a journey across the ocean. In these dreams the dreamer and his/her vessel symbolize the ego, while the ocean symbolizes the unconscious.
Consciousness arises through the development of the ego. Unlike most adults, the ego of infants is undeveloped. The newborn exists in what is sometimes called a state of “undifferentiated wholeness.” This simply means that there is no division within their psyche, for the ego is still merged with the unconscious. An adult who is going through a period of emotional upheaval might say, “I feel like I’m in a boat being tossed about on stormy seas.” This statement implies that the speaker is aware of her existence and of the effects of the turbulent forces upon her. But the situation is somewhat different for the newborn child. When the ego is still immersed in the unconscious, there is no external frame of reference–no “I.” The upset infant is not the passenger of a boat on a stormy sea, he or she is the stormy sea. Until the ego begins to take form within the psyche, the child’s world consists of sensations and instinctual responses to those sensations. The characteristics commonly associated with consciousness, such as a sense of self, or the capacity to deliberate, conceptualize, reflect, and choose are not present.
Consciousness develops as certain attributes of the personality coalesce to form the ego. It appears that everyone is born with a unique “blueprint” which helps guide the development of the ego and the construction of the larger personality. Early life experiences and relationships can aid or hinder this process. The goal of our early years is to build a strong ego, one that will be able to withstand the demands and pressures of life without collapsing. Using the ocean journey analogy, a strong, well-constructed boat will usually offer safer passage on life’s journey.
On the same night, not long after the Viet Nam war, an American man and his young son had nearly identical dreams. Each dreamed that he was under attack by the Viet Cong. In their dreams, each fought to save himself. Although this was a very positive dream for the young boy, it was just the opposite for his father.
For both father and son the Viet Cong symbolized a force or perspective that was foreign to their conscious mind. Symbolically, their egos were under attack by the unconscious. In the boy’s case, it was healthy that he stood up to the unconscious. Through battle with the unconscious his ego is strengthened. For example, young children often dream of being challenged by a monster, a “bad guy,” or a scary animal. The psyche sends them these dreams as a kind of rehearsal for life. Like the playground bully, an adversary in a child’s dreams offers an opportunity to learn how to stand up for and defend oneself. It is interesting to note that when a young child stands up to these adversaries–fights off the bad guy, tames the angry lion, etc.–the adversary typically transforms into a helpful ally. When we wrestle and come to terms with the things that scare us, we tend to grow in both consciousness and character.
The situation is quite different for the boy’s father, however. By the time we reach adulthood, the ego is usually well developed and offers a stable sense of identity to the personality. Instead of strengthening, what the adult ego generally needs is to become more pliable and receptive to the unconscious. In adulthood the psyche places increasing emphasis on the integration of certain aspects of the personality that we rejected in our youth (e.g., potentially helpful aspects of the shadow and anima/animus). The father’s ego was under attack by the unconscious because he was egocentric in his outlook and approach to life. Rather than fighting his unconscious, he should have been trying to learn from it.
A four year-old boy dreamed: “I’m in a house by myself in the desert. The house is bigger than ours and made of strong wood. There is an earthquake, but my house still stands. Then there is a snowstorm, but it still stands. Then there is a tornado, but it still stands. In the house I was making birthday cards for people. I also made a car for myself so that I can drive around.”
This is a very positive dream for a young child to have. The house and car are symbols of his ego and emerging sense of self. The dream indicates that he has established a healthy and stable core to his identity and consciousness. His ego is able to withstand the pressures and challenges of life, both those that come from within (the unconscious), as well as those from outside (family, peers, etc.). The birthday cards he is making may symbolize a recognition and celebration of the new life taking place within. At age four, his ego development is by no means complete, but a promising foundation seems to have been laid.
A week later the same boy dreamed: “All the lights went on in San Francisco and they will never go out again. People tried to turn them off but they wouldn’t go off, so people just played more since the lights were on all the time.” Light is a symbol of consciousness and San Francisco, in this context, probably symbolizes the psyche in all of its wonderful diversity. This dream amplifies the message of the previous one: a level of consciousness and ego development has been reached that will provide the boy an enduring sense of “I-ness.” In other words, he’s got his own boat. (So, if you see him sailing by, be sure to wave “hi.”)
The next article in this series will discuss ways to work with children’s dreams that can assist in the healthy development of their personality.