An article in the March 22, 2023 issue of The Wall Street Journal ("Choose What to Dream Tonight") suggests that a person can guide their dreams but I'm not so sure. The unconscious is powerful and, despite all the electronic gadgets used in brain research, one must respect its power. Elements in dreams arise from recent events like a movie viewed or long ago memories. If, before falling asleep, you tell yourself you will have a dream and remember it (as I advise patients to do) you'll be more likely to but this isn't certain since mental operations are complex. If you don't write the dream down upon awakening you likely won't remember it later since the conscious logical part of the mind largely takes over mental functioning then from the unconscious illogical part that creates dreams. Nightmares, which are very emotionally charged dreams, are remembered longer and common. Those unreceptive to dealing with their unconscious conflicts will tend not to remember their dreams, and dream remembrance seems also affected by some medications.
A Psychologist's Thoughts on Clinical Practice, Behavior, and Life
How To Explain Scary Dreams To A Child
Though scary dreams frighten and can greatly upset, "they are our friends" I tell my young patients. Stories that our mind creates to tell what is bothering us and, like the mystery movies we love, that we must try to figure out.
A scary dream could mean that we are nervous about school the next day or learning a new task like swimming. Or even of growing up and leaving home, which is a common worry as one grows older.
Explaining nightmares in this manner reassures a child and reduces their fear. And, if scary dreams don't frighten their parents, perhaps they are not to be feared at all. Once, having spoken this way to a five-year-old girl and repeating myself a month later, she dismissively said, "Oh I know that!"
Recurring Nightmares and their Elimination
Dreaming occurs nightly but they are not always remembered. The more painful the dream, the more likely it will be remembered and dreams can be painful indeed.
A young child dreamed repeatedly of being eaten by wild animals, and for an adult woman the dreams mirrored her continued sexual abuse when a child. Yet eliminating this pain is not rocket science since dreaming has long been understood. And despite their occasional discomfort, all dreams are our friends I tell my young patients. They are movies that we create in our mind to tell what is troubling us, perhaps being afraid of a school test or the like.
Interpreting a recurring nightmare, whether of a child or adult, will usually eliminate it. Unless the interpretation was faulty, or incomplete with there being more to the emotional conflict that it symbolizes with the person being unable to resolve it at that point in their life. An adult's nightmare that persisted for decades took three years and two interpretations to disappear completely, there having been important personality changes needing to occur first. The initial interpretation reduced the nightmare's frequency but a timely, second interpretation was needed to eliminate it.
There is a logic to nightmares just as with physical symptoms. A fever disappears when the infection is gone, as does a nightmare when the emotional conflict that it symbolizes is resolved.