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Six-year-old Callie could see dirt on everything. It was all over her classroom, on the floor, on the ceiling, on her crayons, and on her shoes. It was on the other kids’ hands, and it was on her teacher’s hands too. She could see all of this because of her new superpower: extreme vision that showed the world’s every detail. Callie was dreaming, of course.
“She spent the entire [dream] telling people not to touch her,” Willie Greer, a parent and entrepreneur, says of his daughter’s nightmare. “No one wanted to talk to her anymore. Then one of her classmates decided to chase her, and that’s when she woke up.”
Greer’s daughter had this dream in April, when the coronavirus pandemic had much of the world on lockdown. Even though Greer doesn’t have a lot of practice at analyzing dreams, he knew what his daughter’s dream was really about. All the dirt symbolized COVID-19. “She had the dream because of all the news and reminders on TV telling everyone to wash their hands,” Greer says.
Callie isn’t the only one having coronavirus pandemic dreams. Millions of kids around the world have been sheltering in their home; some of them haven’t seen their classrooms in over a month. This break in routines, combined with the emotional effects of the pandemic, is likely giving kids pandemic dreams just like it is for adults.
Why kids are having coronavirus dreams
More than five research teams have been collecting these pandemic dreams from adult participants since March. So far, they’ve found that pandemic dreams are influenced by anxiety, loneliness, and lack of sleep. The dreams also use symbols to stand in for the pandemic itself. Callie’s dream replaced the virus with dirt, showing that these commonalities occur regardless of how old we are or where we live.
“The virus is invisible, and I think that’s why it’s transformed into so many different things,” says Dierdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of The Committee of Sleep. She’s one of the researchers collecting pandemic dreams and has discovered that dreams, which help us process negative events and emotions, tend to address the pandemic one of two ways.
One way is by referencing the pandemic directly, which is common for healthcare workers who interact with infected people. But it’s also common for children whose parents, siblings, or someone else they know has contracted coronavirus. Some kids have reported waking up from frightening dreams about their parents being sick.
The other common way dreams incorporate the pandemic is through replacing the virus with a fantastical symbol, like zombies or an insect swarm. (Some children report dreaming about unusual characters from their past, like Big Bird.) Neuroscientists like Barrett say that the more vivid the imagery, the more likely your brain is using the dream to process intense emotions from your waking life. Since dream recall and the bizarreness of what’s in dreams are both related to language processing and long-term memory, adults generally remember more of their dreams, and the dreams we remember are much stranger.
Children, on the other hand, tend to report having more nightmares in general—especially ones that affect their sleep—even before the pandemic. “But the majority of their [pandemic] dreams are not nightmares,” Barrett says, adding that pandemic dreams “have much more anxiety than in the typical sample. They’re just anxious dreams.” That could explain why children’s pandemic dreams are more vivid or more memorable, because the heightened emotions of the pandemic make their imagery more intense.
What parents can do
To help kids who are kept up by pandemic dreams, parents should keep doing what they’ve always done: Assure them that everything will be all right and that they’re safe. But other ideas will help as well.
One way to minimize pandemic dreams is to help children sleep better in the first place. Restless sleep—especially when it wakes us up in the middle of the night—makes us remember more of our dreams. To improve children’s sleep quality, keep up exercise habits, whether it’s indoors or safely outside. Make sure they get enough sunlight to maintain their circadian rhythm, the signals in our brains that tell us when it’s time to sleep, and when it’s time to wake up. Creating calming bedtime habits—such as taking a bath, doing a stretching routine, or reading stories—can help ease little heads off to sleep (just like it does for big ones).
Parents can also try to limit kids’ exposure to things that might upset them, like too much TV news. For instance, Greer redirects Callie’s attention from television by reading stories with her. He hopes this one-on-one time will replace her frightening thoughts about the pandemic with more positive images.
Greer and his wife have also been teaching their daughter some relaxation techniques to empower her to deal with anxious feelings on her own. “Before we go to bed, my wife and I do some breathing exercises with her,” Greer says. Their family practices other mindfulness techniques such as expressing gratitude, which has been shown to boost happiness and increase our sense of well-being. “As we breathe deeply, we say positive things to each other like ‘We are safe,’ or anything we’re grateful for that day,” he says. This ritual has improved the whole family’s sleep quality.
Another way to help kids cope with pandemic dreams is to make a dream box. Many children, especially kids younger than seven, might not have the language skills to fully articulate their fears. But art can help them visualize how to beat the stuff that scares them.
To make a dream box, first have kids decorate an empty tissue box with markers, glue, and little doodads (yarn balls, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, buttons, sequins, whatever!). Write “Dream Box” on the front, and let the glue dry.
Once the box is ready, ask your child to draw a picture to put in the box right before bed. The picture can be something they’ve been worrying about or something scary that’s been appearing in their dreams. This will help your child visualize overcoming their fears and have “mastery dreams,” or dreams that help us take control of our fears instead of letting them control us.
“People who have mastery dreams wake up feeling relieved,” Barrett says, “like their fear is resolved, like it’s behind them.”