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Repeated Childhood Nightmares

Did you suffer from repeated childhood nightmares?  Have those nightmares become embedded in your memory in a way that other things haven’t?

It is often the case when people have been exposed to trauma in childhood that they go onto experience significant problems with memory.  And yet what is interesting is that we tend to remember our repeated nightmares from childhood.

Children going through periods of trauma often have nightmares.  Often the state that the child is in, and that their life is in at the time, becomes overlooked.  The child goes on living and in time they may stop having the nightmares.  They are said to have ‘grown out of them’.

Yet the memory of the dreams remain

Then, years later, perhaps when you are an adult in psychotherapy the dreams are remembered and talked about.

Your dreams present you with a singular opportunity to understand more about your past experiences.

It is a bit like geologists and meteorologists who extract ice from the Arctic that was formed thousands of years ago. In those samples they find key indicators about what the climate used to be like.  About the conditions from ages ago.

So it is with your remembered childhood nightmares.  They can provide a key glimpse into understanding the traumas of your past.

These kinds of dreams can provide you with a point from which to start orienting yourself.  You may have grown up through terribly difficult conditions that weren’t acknowledged at the time.

  • When this happens, though the nightmares may settle down and your sleep improve, you may find that your relationships with people and with the world remains complicated and difficult.
  • You may come to therapy to find a way to understand what has happened, to see if you can find a way to settle and live a more constructive life.

Typically what may happen is that the therapy, like other parts of your life will become confusing.

You may struggle to feel comfortable with your psychotherapist.  Of course this makes sense because you may struggle to feel comfortable with everyone anyway.

Your dreams may provide you with a route into something different and better

It may still be possible to think about your dreams with your psychotherapist;

  • To find, as it were, a perspective from which to consider what life was like in the past.
  • To look at the way the dreams reflected those themes and experience.
  • It may be possible to develop a therapeutic relationship in which you can look back at these things together and learn from them.

Finding a way to look again at your remembered repeated childhood nightmares might be the beginning of developing a new perspective.

I have always been interested in our childhood nightmares.

One particular example that stands out was where someone had grown up in difficult conditions.  She was the child of parents who were themselves just in their twenties when they had her.  Her parents struggled with everything and she was left to manage on her own.

Then tragically her mother died, (this was long before people were interested in how children managed).  And she was left to manage her complicated and traumatic bereavement alone.  Then her nightmares began.  She had them time and again.  Nobody was interested to look at them or to consider that they might relate to her experience.  It would be twenty years before she brought them to her therapy.

The first dream was abstract.  It involved her being given a task to do which in the dream grew and grew into an impossible project. As she talked about the dream as an adult she explained that there was a narration, a voice over which she could now see linked to her mother.  The whole of North America was covered with boxes and she had to take them all to Canada.  She remembered waking up screaming as the size of the task dawned upon her.

In her adult therapy she started to talk about this dream and others beside.  Quite quickly and with little input from me she made all kinds of links and associations in her material.

Talking about the remembered repeated childhood nightmares became a way to pick up some long neglected psychic work.  Now she felt safe to do that and to talk through the period the dreams related to.

  • Do you have memories of repeated childhood nightmares?
  • Have you found a way to think about them?
  • Do you think that they might still have some meaning for you and your life?

In my work I have found that those dreams are often a very productive place to start a healthy exploration from.



Repeated Childhood Nightmares

Toby Ingham

Toby Ingham is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and supervisor based in High Wycombe in England. Toby works on both a short and long-term basis with people who are trying to work through a variety of situations. Sometimes these relate to a specific event such as CPTSD, bereavement, divorce or redundancy, sometimes relating to a more general problem or behavior. He blogs on a wide range of psychological themes.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Repeated Childhood Nightmares. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 28 Jul 2018
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