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Despert, J.L. (1949). Dreams in Children of Preschool Age. Psychoanal. St. Child, 3:141-180.

(1949). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 3:141-180

Dreams in Children of Preschool Age

J. Louise Despert, M.D.


A summary of the literature on dreams has been presented. The records of 43 consecutive children of 2 to 5 years of age, admitted at the Payne Whitney Nursery School, were studied and 190 dreams were collected and analyzed. The dreams were obtained from three different sources: individual play sessions, daily behavior notes, and reports from home. No material was included as dream until it had been subjected to rigid criteria. The total history of each child was well-known, with special reference to emotional adjustment. The method for obtaining dream material has been described, and the various techniques devised to overcome resistances have been illustrated.

It was found that there were considerable variations among the children in their wish and ability to report their dreams; and, on the whole, spontaneous expression was limited. Human beings and animals figured predominantly. The parents appeared in benevolent roles; but, on the other hand, were readily identified with powerful, destructive animals which threatened the child with total destruction. People other than parents were most frequently placed in fearful roles. While the animals which were engaged in biting and devouring were usually large and fearful, there were also smaller animals which engaged in the same activities, although biting was not necessarily an intrinsic characteristic of these animals. The dreams reported were predominantly anxiety

dreams. Chronologically, the expression of anxiety appeared in the following sequence: the very young child (2-year-old) expressed a fear of being bitten, devoured and chased without naming the agent; later (3-, 4-, 5-year-old), devouring animals were identified. The earliest dreams of children represent a threat to the psychobiological unity of the individual. The dream life serves in bridging the racial and individual past to the present experience. It has also a protective function, and provides an outlet for the discharge of anxiety as well as of aggressive impulses, which could not be tolerated during the conscious state. Repression mechanisms are in evidence, with projection, identification, displacement, and denial predominant as the child's mechanisms of defense.

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