Kids get scared of all sorts of things that take us, adults, by surprise. They might suddenly fear people with hats, or men with beards, or rabbits, or those floaty fuzzy things in the bathtub. Rather than try to convince them that there’s nothing to be scared of, or losing our patience at the “ridiculousness of the situation”, we’d be doing our kids a service to acknowledge that they are scared, and Listen to their fears. Here’s an example of how I was once able to do just that.
When one of my boys was not yet three, he awoke at 4:30am crying and very scared.
“Is someone gonna come?” he kept asking me, a look of terror on his face.
He had watched Kung Fu Panda with us earlier that day, a movie that he had seen many times and liked, but this time it seemed to get to him. Perhaps it stirred up a more deeply rooter fear. Fortunately, I had gone to sleep very early, and wasn’t so tired when he awoke.
That had not been the case a month earlier when something similar had happened. It was a week where I was not rested, so when he woke up and came to our bed, I just cuddled him up and we both fell instantly back to sleep. That had been the perfect solution then, but in the last few weeks things had changed. I was starting to feel resentful – not to mention exhausted. My husband, also, was moaning about how he was falling off the side of the bed. The bottom line? My original “solution” was no longer working for 3/5 of our household, and this gave me the push to set a limit I knew needed setting.
This time when my little guy woke up and wanted to come to our bed, I said in a loving tone, “No. I’m going to go back to sleep with your dad, and you are going to stay here in bed with your brother.”
The terror and tears came flowing out.
“No! I want you to stay with me all night!” he shouted.
I tried putting him down and laying across the bottom of the bed while holding his hand. This quieted him, but no matter how long I waited before gently removing my hand from his grip, he would sit bolt upright, call my name, and grab ahold again. I realized this was not going to get me anywhere. A couple of times, I did “escape”, but no more than a minute later, he would show up at my bedside again, wanting to sleep with us. I took him back to his bed and repeated that he was going to sleep in his bed and me in mine, and, again, the tears flowed. I sat on the edge of his bed and held him as he screamed and cried that he wanted to sleep with me. Then he quieted down and explained very creatively that I should get in bed with his brother and that he would go sleep with his dad. Uh, nice try! Again, I set the limit and he cried and screamed. He actually woke my then 7 year old in the bed next to us (my kids don’t wake for anything), who was very sweet, and offered him a spot in his bed. My little guy would have nothing of it. So I just kept holding him and he kept crying and screaming for a whopping TWO HOURS. Yes, you read that correctly.
At 6:30am he fell asleep in my arms, I laid him in his bed, and went back to sleep in mine. He slept for a few more hours and woke up as spunky as ever. I felt great knowing that he had been able to shed all that fear (About what? I’d likely never know.), and even greater when the next night he was back to sleeping right through as he had been.
It can be hard to lovingly support our kids when they’re scared of things that seem so trivial, or when we don’t know what they’re scared about at all. But I stand with Lawrence Cohen when, in his latest book, The Opposite of Worry, he boldly “urge(s) parents to give up deciding whether their children’s fears are legitimate.” As Larry says, “All fears are valid because they are the feelings that our children are experiencing.”
Rather than criticize our kids or try to talk them down, we have the power to change the course of their future by simply acknowledging that they are really scared, reminding them that we will keep them safe, and letting them feel their feelings.
What might you try doing differently next time your child is scared? Please post your ideas in the Comments section below. I always love to hear your thinking.