Freakout

Your daughter is freaking out, afraid of something (irrationally, but still), and unable to stay in her room, coming out to stand crying, over and over.

You feel:

a) Upset that she’s so unhappy, wishing so hard you could make it better for her.
b) Angry that her fear is irrational and inconvenient.
c) Both
c) Other…

You respond by:

a) Talking and praying, discussing strategies, climbing in bed with her. (Are you calm, or are you intense? If you can’t sleep, do you try to slip out, or do you feel obligated to wake her so she won’t feel betrayed when she wakes to find you gone?)

b) Ordering her to stop crying and stop coming out of her room and go to sleep. (Do you use an angry voice… or can you do this calmly… if she ‘disobeys,’ will you escalate to yelling or roughness, or calmly and unconcernedly escort her back?)

c) Other…

Whatever YOU feel, is YOUR issue. You need a way to deal with it other than by taking it out on her.

As for how to respond to the child:

I think it’s important to take a child’s fear seriously even when you know it’s irrational. It’s highly unlikely that a little one would pretend to be afraid. She might be working through some deeper subconscious fear that has nothing to do with the surface trigger she’s talking about. Or, sometimes I wonder if a child needs to sort of practice with intense emotions. Anyway, if you think your child is “just doing it to get attention,” perhaps you might consider that she might NEED attention, and is seeking it the only way she can figure out at the moment.

It’s possible to step over a boundary when taking your child’s fear seriously — to let it become important and upsetting and intense to you as well as to her. It’s HER fear, not yours. Somehow one must be able to express compassion and respect while allowing the fear to belong solely to the child. I’m not talking about becoming afraid of the same thing that’s frightening the little one, of course, but about being just as upset about the fear as the child is. If you’re just as upset as she is, it seems likely that the fear will feel even more dangerous and powerful than she initially thought.

That’s what was going on with me the other night. I was doing the same thing Amy was, getting myself all worked up about the situation, bringing into it my concerns about parenting well, not able to disengage (taking the issue on as if it was mine) and accept the unpleasant reality (that even though I needed to sleep and felt very tired, I was not yet asleep, and likewise for her).

Of course it’s also possible to come across as dismissive, shaming, invalidating, and otherwise NOT compassionate and respectful. Just because you know the fear belongs to the child, and just because you know how irrational it is, doesn’t mean you can expect the child to be able to toss the fear aside and be done with it. Again, the fear is real even if the trigger doesn’t merit such fear.

I expect it is possible to be both gentle and firm… perhaps it is possible to express compassion and respect for the fear without taking it on as your own issue, and without making exceptions to the normal bedtime routine. If you’re able to sleep in the child’s bed, or invite her into your own, or think of some other help (we tried a white noise generator, for example), well and good. But if you’re not able to do those things, then I suppose it’s okay not to. You know the kid is safe. You know they will emerge alive in the morning. You know they know you are there in the house and that you love them and respect their fear. You’re letting them cry — the dreaded Cry It Out, some will charge — but the overall environment is compassion and respect, not abandonment and disconnection.

Interesting.

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7 thoughts on “Freakout

  1. Many fears (some would say most) are irrational. But to the person experiencing it, it is very real. I guess my approach would be to assess whether it is a one-time thing or an ongoing pattern. If the child has a bad dream, or has been exposed to something frightening (book, movie, story) and it is affecting them before bed (when they are tired and resistance is lower anyway), that is one thing. I would do whatever it takes to make the child feel safe and comfortable for that one night. If it is every night fear of the dark, monsters in the closet or whatever, that would require a more strategic approach.

    I learned a lot about fear through my experience with cancer. Lying awake in bed in a dark quiet house, fears that I can manage during daylight can seem overwhelming. I developed my own coping strategies to manage them. Now, a few years later, it is hard to remember how terrifying it felt back then. But I know from other breast cancer survivors, the nighttime is definitely the hardest. So I empathize with childhood nighttime fears, whatever they may be focused on. It’s just scarier then.

    Additional note – it is also harder as the parent to handle these incidents well when WE are tired also. Maybe good to map out a plan to manage them during the day, so that all you have to do is implement the plan when needed, not figure it out.

  2. Good point, Amy, about one-time situations vs. patterns. In this case, we were out of town. And I could think of several things that might have been disturbing factors.

    I appreciate your point, too, from your cancer experience, and it’s been true for me with depression / anxiety, too — I’ve had to learn to not listen to myself when I’m anxious or depressed in the evening, but instead to treat it physiologically with breathing and posture and such.

  3. Thankfully this has not been a big issue for us. If I have one that’s fearful I enjoy the time together comforting, snuggling, talking and sharing, or singing to them until they fall asleep. I love learning about each household, because we all have very real struggles~but in different areas. Fascinating!

    My biggest struggle is strife amongst the brethren. ~sigh~ BOYS!!!!

    • That’s nice, Sandi. And I know if we had more than one, that strife amongst the brethren would be an issue for us, too! Have you found any good resources for that? I’ve heard about _Siblings Without Rivalry_ but haven’t looked into it as it’s not applicable to us.

      • I have read a lot about sibling rivalry, and I’m not sure if that’s even exactly what it is. It seems to be more about personal rights and perception, etc. They definitely love one another and would defend one another with their life against others, but HEY! You better keep yer mitts off my stuff and my person. Make sense? It’s also poor responses to different situations. I truly believe some of it is developmental since it has escalated around puberty for more than one of them.

      • That makes sense. I would guess that increased defensiveness around personal rights and perception would have to do with increased insecurity in one way or another — not feeling as valued as other family members, not feeling sufficiently their own person, or whatever. It makes sense that that would naturally increase around puberty.

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