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Mack, J.E. (1965). Nightmares, Conflict, and Ego Development in Childhood. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 46:403-428.

(1965). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 46:403-428

Nightmares, Conflict, and Ego Development in Childhood

John E. Mack


It has been the purpose of this study to explore the potentialities of a developmental approach to children's nightmares, viewing the phenomenon as one to which most children are subject at some time in their lives. I have presented case material to demonstrate how rich a source of information study of the nightmare can be for advancing our understanding of the deepest anxieties and conflicts of childhood. Evidence has been put forth to support the proposition that the extreme intensity of nightmarish anxiety stems not only from the child's current conflicts, but also from those associated fears dating from an earlier period that are reactivated under the regressive and isolated conditions of sleep. It is this link with an earlier time, a time when the ego was more vulnerable, less resourceful and less firmly grounded in a separate reality, that, in my opinion, accounts for the overwhelming character

of fear that all nightmares seem to possess in some measure.

In attempting to understand the conditions under which nightmares occurred in my examples, I have emphasized the essential and complex inter-relationship of several factors. These include environmental events and forces, the thrust of spontaneous developmental processes, the nature of the child's conflicts both current and past, and the state of the ego at the time of the dream, including the effect of physiological factors such as illness. The timing of the nightmare's precipitation seems to depend on the accumulation of tension of overwhelming degree as a result of a series of environmental provocations or threats of a configuration perceived as specifically meaningful in the terms of the child's conflicts.

We have also been able to trace a considerable development in the child's mastery of the nightmare anxiety, from a time of total helplessness and dependence in infancy through various degrees of partial success in modifying or warding off the frightening dream phenomena, to the final prevention of the nightmare itself in latency. In association with this increasing ability of the ego to defend against anxiety in the nightmare, and through behaviour connected with the dream, we have seen a parallel development in the reality testing functions and in the relations to the primary objects.

Closely related to this development of the ego's defensive capabilities (and at times identical with it), we have seen an evolution of structure in the nightmare and in the complexity of the psychic apparatus as it is displayed therein. Thus, though the little boy of 2 years 10 months nakedly reveals his castration concerns in his nightmare, he has already achieved the ability to disguise his wishes and fears through a number of displacements, distortions, projections, symbol formations, and condensations. In the later examples a further advance in the nightmare's structural complexity could be noted, with a concomitant advance in the representation of human objects in the dreams. Certain difficulties in distinguishing the operation of an independent superego in the nightmare from various introjected and partially internalized representations of the parents, as well as from the child's own projected id productions, have been discussed. The apparent dependence of dreams in all instances upon visual representation contributes to these difficulties.

It has been suggested more speculatively that to maintain its integrity the psychic apparatus in sleep, deprived of its environmental supports and many of its usual daytime resources such as play activity, responds to anxiety by developing such mechanisms of thought as symbolic distortion, condensation and displacement, a 'desperate creativity' which serves both the functions of defence and tension discharge. Thus anxiety experienced in sleep may serve as a stimulus for the development of psychic structure as the ego struggles to meet its challenge. The greater complexity in the structure of children's anxiety dreams in comparison with those of the simple wish fulfillment type may be offered in support of this hypothesis.

Finally, I have noted that in certain instances the nightmare may inaugurate a developmental advance for the child, while under other circumstances it may mark the onset of a pathological formation. It will be the task of further study to determine more precisely the conditions under which a nightmare may herald or perhaps even stimulate a developmental advance, in contrast to those instances in which the anxiety remains overwhelming, leading to lasting symptom formation or impairment of ego functioning. It is my expectation that such study will be found to bear meaningfully on the more general question of the relationship of anxiety and its mastery to ego and personality development.

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