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CBT for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
6 CEUs It Wasn't Your Fault- Diagnosis & Treatment of Sexual Abuse in Children & Adults

Section 1
Trauma Dreams

Question 1 | Test | Table of Contents | Child Abuse CEU Courses
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, & MFT CEU

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"It wasn't your fault." How many times have you heard yourself saying that to a sexually abused client? As you may know sometimes a child's feelings of guilt and responsibility for the sexual abuse they have experienced materializes in their dreams. In this section, we will discuss three types of dreams: trauma dreams, freedom dreams, and resolution dreams.

As you are well aware, in sexually abused children, dreams are sometimes an attempt made by one's unconscious to communicate a memory repressed behind defenses. Though the victim may not realize what the dream is trying to say or even remember the dream itself, the effects are keenly felt. Renee, age 35, began therapy without being able to remember her frequent nightmares. She would say, "I woke up filled with fear and my bed was soaked with sweat. I can't recall the dream, but I know I was being hurt."

♦ Using a Dream Journal
To help Renee deal with her nightmares, I found a "Dream Journal" to be beneficial. You might compare how I introduced dream journaling to Renee with your technique. I told Renee to start writing about her dreams as soon as she woke up from them. Though difficult at first, she found that as she continued writing, more of her dream was remembered.

She wrote, "I was trapped in a black room, like a big box. It had no windows or doors. I was terrified that something outside was going to get me. I ran around the room, bashing into walls, trying to get out. Each time I ran into a wall, some part of my body started to bleed. Soon I was covered with blood. Then suddenly I sensed something in the room with me. I would scream and wake up."

As she discussed the dream with her group, Renee began to retrieve memories of her past that she had been repressing for years. When she was five, she had been sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend and would hide in a closet where he would find her, beat and rape her. Once she had remembered this part of her past, Renee's nightmares gradually decreased. Would your Renee who is experiencing trauma dreams benefit from a Dream Journal?

In addition to trauma dreams, a second type of dream is known as a freedom dream. These types of dreams, instead of bringing to light a subdued memory, usually occur early during a person's healing process and are accompanied by a feeling of release.

Megan, age 16, had been sexually abused by a girlfriend's older sister at the age of seven. She could remember the experience, unlike Renee, but her embarrassment kept her from speaking about it with anyone. However, once she finally related the story to her therapy group, that same night she had a freedom dream.

She said, "I was standing on a ledge, high up on the side of a cliff. I was so afraid of falling; I knew if I did, I would die. All of a sudden I opened my arms and leapt out into the air. I didn't fall, instead I flew. I could see others flying and gliding. As I flew, I could see other people standing on ledges and knew that they were standing there waiting to fly for the first time. Then I would fly real close to one of these people and yell, 'Jump! You can fly too!'" Megan believed that the freedom she felt when flying in the dream reflected the freedom she now had after bringing her abuse to the forefront.

In addition to trauma dreams and freedom dreams, a third type of dream is the resolution dream. The resolution dream occurs during the healing process. A resolution dream, however, signifies an emotional wound that has finally closed.

Ryan, age 15, had been sexually abused by his father when he was 10. Since then, he has had a recurring dream of being chased through a house. Ryan stated, "While running, I lock doors and close all the windows as someone from outside tries to get in." After being in group therapy for five months, Ryan's dream had changed. He said, "One night, I let the person outside in the house. It was my father. When he came in, I just stood there looking at him. I got bigger and bigger, and he got smaller and smaller. I was no longer afraid of him. I turned and walked away from him."

Though Ryan realizes that he still has much more healing, the alteration in his dream indicates a giant step forward in his recovery.

♦ The Rules Exercise
I have found a good companion technique with Dreams Journaling is the "Rules" exercise. The Rules Exercise can become a vehicle for interpreting the familial relationships that are reflected in the client's dreams. In this exercise, I asked Renee if she wanted to write down five rules, either spoken or unspoken, that she remembered from her childhood.

As you know, rules are a good measure of how open and stable a family system is. An open family system will be able to change their rules according to situations. In a closed family system, one which breeds negative experiences, rules are more demanding and unbendable.

I have found good questions to consider while going through the Rules exercise are: Who made the rules? How adaptable were the rules? How were they enforced? Which rules have you kept in your adult life and how have they affected you as an adult? Noting such details helps to discern how the early familial interactions have an effect on the adult today. Can you think of your Renee that might benefit from a "Rules" exercise?

In this section, we discussed three types of dreams: trauma dreams, freedom dreams, and resolution dreams, as well as the Rules exercise.

In the next section, we will discuss the child's feelings of guilt and responsibility and the child's beliefs in the treatment of the child victim. We will also look at the use of externalizing abusive messages.

- Draucker, C. B. (2006). Introduction. In Counselling survivors of childhood sexual abuse (pp. 7-10, 11-13). London: Sage Publications.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Jones, T. M., Bottoms, B. L., & Stevenson, M. C. (2020). Child victim empathy mediates the influence of jurors’ sexual abuse experiences on child sexual abuse case judgments: Meta-analyses. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 26(3), 312–332.

Kron, T., Hareven, O., & Goldzweig, G. (2015). Dream Dome: Do dreams shield the psyche in times of continuous stress? Dreaming, 25(2), 160–172. 

Pruiksma, K. E., Cranston, C. C., Rhudy, J. L., Micol, R. L., & Davis, J. L. (2018). Randomized controlled trial to dismantle exposure, relaxation, and rescripting therapy (ERRT) for trauma-related nightmares. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(1), 67–75.

Pulverman, C. S., & Meston, C. M. (2020). Sexual dysfunction in women with a history of childhood sexual abuse: The role of sexual shame. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(3), 291–299.

Yu, C. K.-C. (2014). Psychopathological symptoms as a function of trauma, dreams, and inhibitions. Dreaming, 24(4), 309–322. 

What are the three types of dreams that can be experienced by sexually abused clients? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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