More Than One Way to Help a Child Past Fears

She watches the “Loud Sound” from the safety of my arms, and SHE chooses curiosity over fear.

“Tell me a story!” she says, the lights off and her little face barely visible in the nightlight-lit room.

“Once upon a time…” I begin. “There was a little kitten.”
“AND A MONSTER!” she interjects, her face rapt with imagined terror that she already knows she will resolve in her telling of the tale that she has taken over. Her fear is somehow empowering rather than powerless.

I go silent and I let her tell the story to me. I cannot understand all of it, her words blend together when she rushes and in the dark room it’s harder to lipread than it usually is. Her face is animated as she experiences fear, revelation of a solution, and a triumphant victory over her fears. At the end of it she smiles and snuggles into my side and falls asleep. I have said very little.

What a strange and kind of wonderful take on the classic childhood fear. Monsters in the dark at bedtime.

This isn’t a place that she and I came to out of some plan that I had. I could never have imagined this. It’s too different from all of the stories that I have heard. It’s not something I could intentionally create, either. It is a place that she and I have come to across the two and a half years of her life through the moments of fear and uncertainty that she has experienced.

I have told her that monsters are imaginary things and not real ones like the rabbit or the cat, but I have never told her that she should not be afraid of the things that she imagines. I have never told her that she should not be afraid of the things that she fears in real-life either. I’ve honored her fears of loud noises as we have watched them from the distance. I’ve honored her when she has shown me that it’s time to leave a place where she does not want to be. I held her near when she had separation anxiety, and I’m a safe place to snuggle up to at night if she has the need.

I’ve done all the things that I’m “not supposed to do” if I want an independent resourceful child that has the ability to be fearless. I have not done the things that I am “supposed to do”. I have not forced her to confront her fears. I have not tried to demonstrate that they are a petty nonsense of childhood.

But here she is, this child of mine. In my arms, telling me stories about the monsters and how she triumphs over her fears.

She is two and a half years old, only thirty pounds of a whispy little human.

How did we get here?

I think back on the moments that she has been uncertain and afraid. Where her body has been rigid and quivering as she has clung to me in fear. The times that I have forced the “should” thoughts out of my head and have simply been there for her while she was afraid and needing a safe place to work out her fears.

The day before she turned two…

April 2014
She startled and scrabbled into my legs, I swept her up to my hip and smiled. “What’s wrong?” Her little face crumpled in worry and her eyes scanned my face and saw my calm. “Noise!” She said, full of curious worry.

“You hear a loud noise?” I ask, calmly. She is scared, that is fine. She is small and the sound is new. I am not afraid, it is a sound I know and expect. I can honor her fear without echoing it or agreeing to find it fearful myself.

“Yes! Noise! Loud! Ears!” She says, earnestly.

“Are you scared?”

“Yes”, she says, looking down, lower lip quivering.

“Do you want to see what it is?”

And we go to explore. The loud saws trimming the bushes outside, the leaf blowers.

Her tense body slowly relaxing into my calm.

These are the patterns we are building for her. Her fear, our comfort and safety.

She is learning that fear is not to be feared, that it is accepted and that I will help her understand the things for caution, for acceptance, for fun, and the things to truly fear.

… At the end of her second summer when the days grew shorter and the darkness came earlier and earlier, she feared this darkness that seemed so new.

August 2014
Keenie is suddenly afraid of the dark having not seen it much over the summer. “Too dark!” She says, pointing out the window.

“It is dark.” I say, sitting next to her at the head of the bed. She clings to my shoulders.

“Oh! Look! The moon lives in the dark.” I say. “And the stars do, too.” She looks. “Where’s stars?” She asks. “The light in our room is too bright to see them. Can I shut it off?” she says yes, and so we shut it off together to see the stars that sprinkle the sky with dots of white.

“And look.. trees live in the dark. All in rows along the street.”

“Houses!” she says.

“Yes, houses live in the dark.”

“What’s that sound?” She wrinkles her nose.

“Can I open the window to hear?” I ask.

With the window open the sound of crickets fills the room.

“The sound is crickets and peeper frogs.” I say. “They live in the dark and they sing at night. Isn’t it peaceful?”

“Yeah..” she says.

“I love the dark.” I say. She echoes me. “It is my favorite part of the day. It is when we snuggle and when we sleep.”

“Out! Dark!” She says, wanting to go out into the darkness that she had just feared.

So we go out to run barefoot on the grass under the moon and stars and streetlights.

“Goodnight, dark.” We say when we are done. And then we go inside to go to bed.

I did not force her, but she became unafraid nonetheless.

Bravery is something strong. We all want to be strong. It is a powerful thing to be.

There are many paths to many places. I believe firmly that bravery is not something that a child is pushed into, but something that they seize for themselves in a moment of empowerment.

4 thoughts on “More Than One Way to Help a Child Past Fears

  1. what an amazing post as always. Thank you for empowering and insiring me so much. Can i ask your opinion? My boy is 30 months and im still waiting it out. He never slept through the night,still breastfeeds day and night and still gets scared of lots of things mainly people and children. I am starting to worry as it seems endless now. Is it possible im doing it wrong,or there is something wrong or does he just need much longer then most? thank you,one really tired mama

    1. Kristyna,

      Some kids are naturally more cautious than others. It’s the nature vs nurture debate at its core. You can’t create a fearless child by pushing them past their comfort level and you can’t make a child fearful by being supportive and present when they are scared.

      You can: Be calm when they are fearful. By being calm you make sure that you’re not feeding into their fears. If you get fearful or anxious when they are afraid it can help to remind yourself that even though THEY are afraid you don’t have to be. You can be a calm strong rock for them to cling to when they need to. And they can feel your calm. Eventually they grow into that.

      Sleep.. That comes at a different pace for different kids. If a child is very sensitive and prone to being afraid of stuff then it will come later. My daughter sleeps in a sidecarred crib because she doesn’t feel ready to sleep in her own bed in the kids’ room yet. I’m fine with that. Her older brother was ready before this age and moved into the bottom bunk in her brothers room at around 25 months old. Different kids. She’s FAR more outgoing and fearless than he is in a lot of ways. But she’s not ready for own room yet.

      I try to reframe things and explain how I see them without diminishing the child’s fear or perspective. It’s okay to grow into comfort levels.

      “You are afraid of the dark. That is okay. I am not afraid of the dark, I like it. Would you like to know what I like about the dark?”

      With my oldest it was harder for him. I pressured him to move faster than he was comfortable with as far as sleep goes, because I thought it was “actively teaching”. It backfired and he was the clingiest and most needy of my children. When I pulled him close he did best. When I pushed him out in front of his comfort level he never did well. I noticed that when I had my next two children and took the approach of calm patient mama bear with bear cubs where my job was to make sure that they didn’t fall off cliffs, and where I should show them how to do things safely and I would keep them safe and they would lumber off from me to play bear cub games at whatever pace they were comfortable at.

    2. Some thoughts- when he wakes up and needs you at night.. It’s okay to talk about being tired. “Mama’s really tired right now. So let’s nurse for a minute and then we can snuggle down and see if you can fall back to sleep without nursing. Is that okay?” I started talking to my daughter about this at seventeen months when the exhaustion crashed into me. At around 23 months she stared sleeping through the night as I encouraged her to night wean. It’s not a fast process but it’s tear free and respects the child’s pace.

      “I’m really sleepy and I can’t sleep too well when you are nursing. You can’t sleep too well when you’re nursing, either. We will try.. We will snuggle. I will rub your back and we will be safe and comfortable and snuggly and near… And if it doesn’t work that’s fine too.” was my basic attitude.

  2. I love everything I’ve read of yours, and once again, this confirms it. You are an amazing woman and mother. I share your thoughts often with everyone who will listen. Thank you for being a constant inspiration in my parenting journey!

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