Don't downplay them, or you'll miss an opportunity to see what's emotionally important to your child. "Particularly in a time of stress, parents should acknowledge children's dreams and let them know that their feelings and fantasies matter," says Alan Siegel, Ph.D., author of Dreamcatching: Every Parent's Guide to Exploring and Understanding Children's Dreams and Nightmares.
Your child won't understand that her unconscious thoughts and feelings are the source of her dreams. Rather than confuse her, "tell her that what she sees is like a video she's watching when she's asleep," says Robert Van de Castle, Ph.D., author of Our Dreaming Mind.
Then ask her about it: "Did you fly with your arms out in front of you like Superman?" "Did you swim fast or slowly?" Paying close attention both underscores her emotions and, if it was a happy dream, bolsters her enjoyment of the memory.
Calm His Fears
When your child has a nightmare, telling him "It was just a dream" discounts his anxiety. Instead, console him and get him to tell you about the mean bear or the big lion. What color was it? Was it walking or running? Then reflect back what he's said: "That brown bear must have been scary." Remind him that the bear was something he saw when he was asleep, but he's awake now and safe.
If your child reports frightening dreams often (almost every night) and he seems afraid to go to sleep, there may be cause for concern. Siegel recommends scripting alternative endings for his dreams, a process he calls "assertiveness training for the imagination." For example, if your child is dreaming about being chased by an angry unicorn, tell him that next time he has that dream he can build a fence around the beast or use a magic wand to make the unicorn friendly. Most important, be sensitive to the anxieties that may be causing the nightmare.
Help Her Grow
Frightening or fun, dreams can be an outlet for your child's creativity, says Van de Castle. All it takes is a little follow-up: Have her draw or paint the images she remembers or invite her to describe her evening escapades at breakfast -- it's sure to be an inspired performance.