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The threshold between wounding and potential: the child in dreams
How working with the child figures in dreams can guide you towards your potential.
This is an essay from Dreamwork Circle–a unique community I created for anyone who wants to learn the art of dreamwork. You can join for as little as £5/month to access resources like this one, £25/month to also access classes and practice circles, and £35/month for ad-hod professional support with your dreams on top of all else. Join now to watch the full, 90-minute class on The Child in Dreams that this essay is based on and to catch Alyssa Polizzi’s () upcoming class on The Shadow in Dreams this Sunday at 7pm BST.
Dreams are often populated by all sorts of children: foetuses, babies, toddlers, little girls or boys. Some may be yours, some may be birthed by other figures in the dream, some are orphaned. Some are lost and mourned. Some bring joy and a feeling of renewal. Some remind us of the dreadful things that happened to us when we were most vulnerable.
Working with the child in dreams is one of the most tender part of dreamwork practice. It takes us right down to our core, where our potential meets our wounding.
So let's take a look at the different ways the child appears in dreams and how you can work with it safely.
A double meaning
The emergence of a child in dreams requires special attention, as the child can stand for different parts, even for the same person. It's very important that you discern what the symbol may refer to in each case. The child symbol has a double meaning:
the Self (wholeness, individuation, potential);
the infantile shadow (including the wounded child).
Although it's not always easy to discern whether you're dealing with an archetypal dream or a personal one, a good rule of thumb is that archetypal dreams tend to be more abstract and "weird", whereas dreams that deal with the personal unconscious usually have more details and known figures.
However, the paradox of the child symbol is that the two meanings aren't mutually exclusive.
The realisation of the Self is, in a way, a return to childhood's innocence, spontaneity, and genuineness of reaction. The Bible expresses that we will not be welcome into Heaven unless we become like children again–taken symbolically, this refers to embracing our innate qualities, our innocence, and our complete trust in the Self as the ruling principle.
At the same time, the very same qualities can also constitute our unconscious, unprocessed infantile shadow–the childish, wounded, and traumatised young parts of us, acting out in our adult lives.
The child archetype as Self
The child symbol is based on the archetype of the child. Jung believed that we all contain within us this archetype, "the eternal child", as representative of our continuous growth and becoming. It's therefore a symbol of wholeness and can stand for the Self in dreams.
The child is like the unique seed of our personality. It contains your potential for individuation: who you're meant to become and all your inherent qualities (not your adaptations). And, just like a normal child, it requires your nurturing, care, and attention in order to grow towards its potential.
A baby or young child appearing in more abstract or less detailed dreams could stand in for this archetypal child. Depending on the context of the dream, it could be a reminder of your path, a confirmation that you're moving towards your individuation, or a warning that you're acting against yourself.
The infantile shadow
On the other hand, there's the infantile shadow which contains our childishness and our wounded children.
Sometimes the dream ego appears as a young child in an adult situation–this can be the unconscious' way of telling you that you're acting like a child in a current situation (and it's obviously not working well for you).
The infantile shadow is typically needy, demanding, attention-seeking, moody, entitled, avoiding responsibility and wanting to be taken care of without offering anything back.
By using this symbol, the dream attempts to confront our conscious attitude and remind us to act like adults in our relationships or life situations. Our adult selves understand that good relationships are based on an equal give-and-take, being responsible for ourselves, taking action, perseverance, and knowing when to give up.
I find that the infantile shadow can be amplified by practices like inner child work. The increased popularity of this concept means that many of us focus too much on the inner child, before the adult is strengthened enough. While cultivating play, spontaneity, and a child-like trust in life is important, these qualities need to be firmly supported by an adult ego who can think critically, relate well, and function effectively in the world.
As Marie-Louise von Franz says, "one has to first become adult, and then a child".
Without this, we risk remaining stuck in the puer or puella archetype–whimsical eternal children who, while creative and lively, are incapable of relationships and never actualise our potential or make it in the real world.
“The worst off are those who in early childhood have been starved of love. They go about pale and bitter with a nobody loves me expression, but if one makes a kind gesture, there is no appreciation, only the desire for more. If you don’t give more, then they are furious and enraged.” (Marie-Louise von Franz, The Problem of the Puer Aeternus)
The wounded child as infantile shadow
Part of the infantile shadow is the wounded child: the young parts of you who got stuck at various developmental stages due to difficulty or trauma.
The wounded child has to hold the pain, which remains unprocessed in the personal unconscious. It becomes what Internal Family Systems calls an exile–a part that isn't normally welcome by the ego and exiled into the unconscious. The bigger the emotion, the further this part is from consciousness. It only surfaces as shadow when current situations remind us of the same environment or relationship dynamics that created the original wound.
The sad reality of these inner children is that, until we bravely turn towards them, they are like lost children or orphans in our psyche. First abandoned by the parents, who failed their task (most of the times due to their own difficulties or ignorance), they are further abandoned by the ego who feels intensely phobic of their pain. Just like our parents, we dare not look at what happened to us and feel the child's pain–and we perpetuate the cycle.
I am a small child, about two years old. I am standing alone in a house under construction. I call for my mother repeatedly. In doing this I have the feeling that if I am not heard, I also will not exist. Then I stop crying out, but I am quite afraid, afraid of going crazy. In the dream I also sense–now as an adult again–that I dare not get involved with these feelings; they are too dangerous. I have the feeling that I really have to wake up because I shouldn’t venture into these feelings on my own. (from Kathrin Asper’s The Inner Child in Dreams)
These children appear in dreams as orphans, sacrifice, intense feelings of terror, annihilation, rage, despair, or falling to pieces (feelings usually associated with trauma in infancy). They're locked in cages, alone in dark, damp rooms, naked, starved, lonely, unrelated, or even dead. They may be treated as objects, afraid of themselves, or unsure of their existence, which is typical of children who grew up with narcissistic parents.
If the dream points to an early trauma, the imagery in the dream often takes on archetypal proportions representing the psyche's attempt to disguise the awful truth of the situation in order to protect the weak ego from disintegrating. Such dreams feature powerful evil forces, angels or mythical figures, or dark, epic events.
You can probably tell that dreams of wounded children are incredibly helpful in therapy. Their spontaneous emergence from the unconscious is a signal that the ego is ready to deal with the material and slowly integrate it. They also offer direct access to the emotion that needs to be processed in a way that merely talking about your childhood cannot–especially when you can't recall much of it.
Depending on the nature of the dreams and wounding, the work is best approached creatively and somatically. You can paint the dream, write about it, or slowly work with a therapist to access the emotion in the dream and process it through the body. A mere intellectual approach will not suffice, as that's the ego's clever defence against the child's feelings (and perhaps the only "empathy" the child knows). It's not uncommon to first work on strengthening your adult before you approach the child.
And while the work is slow and painful, freeing these inner children from their prisons transforms the shadow and allows it to liberate the vitality, curiosity, and playfulness of the child. It's the only way to recover your truth and end the cycle of abuse.
“Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and unique history of our childhood.” (Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self)
Questions to begin working with the child archetype
How do you feel about your childhood?
What your childhood was like? Were your needs met? Were you allowed to have needs?
Your relationship to your mother and father: who played what role? What role did you have to play in the family (scapegoat, golden child, confidante, parent etc)?
How do you appear in dreams (child or adult)?
What are the children in your dreams up to?
How do you treat the children in your dreams? How do other figures treat them?
If you want to dive deeper into this topic, join Dreamwork Circle to watch the in-depth, 90-minute class on the topic, including dream examples, the idea of children as sacrifice, children of narcissistic parents, the divine child, and how to heal the wounded children (available on Visionary and Alchemist tiers).
When you join, you also get access to all the previous classes and the upcoming live class I will co-teach with Alyssa Polizzi ofon The Shadow in Dreams.
Dreamwork Circle is the perfect container to learn the art of dreamwork and get professional guidance with your dreams in live practice circles (on the Visionary tier) and by submitting them ad-hoc to the confidential platform (on the Alchemist tier).
It would be a pleasure to see you there!