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A nameless fear wreaks havoc on bedtime

March 24, 2011 - Betsy Bethel
Have you ever really stopped to consider what is going through your young child's mind at a given moment? Like when they are being completely irrational about wearing a certain pair of socks, or they are telling an amazing story they are making up on the spot, or they ask you out of the blue about where babies come from or what "war" means. ...

Every response or non-response we make in any of these situations tells our children what we think of them, whether we value them or not. But in situations where my child's behavior is challenging, I have found it is so easy to focus on how frustrated or angry I feel rather than remain calm and figure out what is really bothering her.

My husband and I are dealing with a 5-year-old who is "scared" at night and won't go to sleep. This has been going on for about a week. She won't name her fear. Maybe she doesn't know what she is afraid of. My husband wondered out loud to me this morning if maybe she isn't even scared, but instead is feeling something she can't articulate. Oh, how I wish I had the superpower of mind reading!

Dave has whispered "good dream visions" to her after lights-out, filling her head with thoughts of unicorns, rainbows, princesses, castles, waterfalls, puppies, kittens and ice cream. I have stopped reading her any kind of book that has "adventures" in it — the Magic Tree House series has been shelved, for example. On Monday, we took her to Toys R Us to find a "roaring" flashlight — I remember my niece having one in the shape of a tiger; you press the button and the mouth opens to reveal a light while emitting an electronic roar to scare away whatever unknown entity might be lurking. The one we found is Rex from the "Toy Story" movies. He roars fiercely and then asks, "Were you scared?" It's cute. Rex stands watch on her nightstand now, but I don't think he is helping. There hasn't been any roaring going on.

Well, unless you count last night. I wasn't home, but apparently Dave reached a breaking point. Tempers flared, and Emma ended up — gasp! — sleeping in our bed, which we normally prohibit until the early morning hours. "What's wrong with her?" my mother-in-law, who lives with us, asked me the other night. "She's scared," I said. "That's all we know."

But I am beginning to wonder if perhaps the brief footage she saw the day of the tsunami is the source of her unnamed fear. Two nights ago on the way home, she asked me if a "salami was going to get to Idaho." I was confused for a minute and asked to repeat her question. "A salami! You know ... the earthquake!!??" she said.

"A tsunami?"

"Yeah!" she said. "Will it get to Idaho?"

"You mean Ohio?" I asked. No, she meant Idaho. So, I told her no, there is no way a tsunami is going to ever hit Idaho, because it doesn't have a beach.

"But I saw the mud moving and the pieces of car in it," Emma said, which is a horrifying image that made me want to take an axe to the TV. She wanted me to remind her where that happened.

"Japan," I said.

"Yeah," she said. And she then proceeded to tell me about her invisible friend Judy who lived on the beach in Japan where the earthquake hit and then the tsunami hit and then she died. I jumped in and assured her Judy didn't die, that she got on top of her roof and was rescued by a helicopter. She thought about it and agreed. Then she said poor Judy moved to ... "Where's that place that has the tornadoes, Mom?" Since she has seen "Wizard of Oz," I answered "Kansas."

"Yes, Judy moved to Kansas and a tornado came and her house got carried away and she died."

"I'm sure she went into the cellar and was safe," I said.

"No, she didn't live on a farm so she didn't have a cellar."

She then changed the story again, and Judy came to live with us, along with a hundred of her other invisible friends. And they were all safe because we don't have earthquakes or tornadoes and we don't live on the beach so we won't get a tsunami. I can't tell you how relieved I was that she didn't get wind of our tornado watch last night.

Anyway, as I am writing this I am now convinced the tsunami is the answer to the mystery. It has freaked her out to the point she doesn't want us to leave her side at night.

I happen to have a parenting book on my desk titled "Just Tell Me What to Say," by family counselor Betsy Brown Braun. Lo and behold, there's a chapter about disasters, titled "Is the Fire Coming to Our House?" Braun says the single most important message to get across to your child in the event of natural disasters, terrorism and war that have not personally affected you or your family is: "I will keep you safe." OK, but tell me something I don't know.

Two sections that caught my eye:

1. "Listen for the question beneath the question." — "It is your job," Braun says, "to figure out what her real question is and to clarify what she is feeling."

I know! How do I do that?

"Sometimes you may have to probe a little deeper: 'Are you worried that a tsunami is going to happen to us and we will not be safe?' And sometimes you will just take a stab at what you think the child is really asking: 'I think you are worried that a tsunami is going to happen to us and we will not be safe.' Then you speak to that underlying question or worry: 'The tidal wave in the ocean happened far, far away in a whole different side of the world.'" (By the way, this book was published in 2008, not long after the tsunami in Indonesia.)

2. "Don't downplay your child's feelings." — "Resist the urge to say, 'Don't worry' or 'Don't be sad' to your child."

It's not easy to clamp down on those automatic sentiments, is it?

"Your child's feelings are real, even if you think they are unfounded or needless," she continues. "Your child needs to have her feelings validated and reassured. ... You might say: 'I know that you are really worried about the fire you have heard about. That fire is happening far, far away from here, far from where we are.' At the same time, it is important not to downplay the seriousness of the situation. It usually is serious, very serious. Saying, 'Don't cry. Everything will be OK' is not only another way of denying the child her feelings, but it is also somewhat crazy-making. The child knows something big is up, but you are telling her it isn't so. ... You might say: 'I know that makes you feel really scared. Fires are scary. But we are safe here.'"

By the way, Braun also recommends protecting children under age 7 from the media. For example, don't watch TV news with them (I think even a single promo clip can do damage); don't listen to radio shows on the way to or from school; and, don't read the newspaper at the breakfast or dinner table. And certainly avoid shows or films that depict catastrophes.

At the end of the chapter, Braun lists ways to support a child through a crisis, including giving them more physical comfort, expecting some uncharacteristic behavior, maintaining your routines and a calm atmosphere; and being aware that the need for additional nighttime comforts may arise.

Of course, I want to be supportive and I don't want my daughter to be scared. But as I mentioned at the start of this post, I would be lying if I didn't admit I am sick of feeling frustrated. Sometimes I feel like Emma is "playing a game" or "trying to ruin" my morning, day, evening ... life! I know she's not. Brown's book, as well as one by Bonnie Harris titled "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons," have helped me to understand that.

I am sure we will make it through this phase and a new challenge will hit us between the eyes next week. Like most parents, we do our best, fear the worst and hope our child doesn't need years of therapy to undo what we've done.

Sweet dreams to you and your little ones ... and to Emma Skye.


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