Having the responsibility for the well being of a young child is, in my biased opinion, one of the most challenging, most rewarding roles on the planet. As with many things in life, in any one single moment, I’m often offered opportunity to make a difference – either in my life or in someone else’s.
My son experiences much of his fear in the form of team mascots. As strange as this sounds, think of it in terms of monsters. The mascots are his. They are the boogieman of his dreams. It’s something that started a few years back, has gotten a bit ‘better’ and continues to be one of our challenges. Considering we’re pretty big sports fans, it’s a challenging time.
The other night, a few minutes before bedtime, we started the conversation about taking a shower and going to bed (as many parents know, bedtime is not a single event, but a process). He immediately became scared. His breathing got heavier. His eyes got bigger. His talking more immediate.
We’ve experienced behavior similar to this in the past and this time it was different – it was more urgent and more serious. His fear was BIG! We were all sitting on the couch. He looked and me and with tears starting to form in his eye, said ‘Daddy, I want you to sleep with me tonight so I’m safe. I want you to stay with me the whole night until I wake up. Then I’ll be safe. That’s the only way I’ll be safe.” By this time, his tears started to well up.
I paused. I hesitated to answer. Was this ‘real’? Was he really scared or acting something out? Was he putting a little more finesse on his typical bedtime performance to push things off as long as humanly possible? Not tonight. Something was different. Something was very, very real.
I responded – “I love you. You’re safe. It’s ok.” I then went on to tell him I’d be with him the whole time taking a shower. That I’d be there putting him to bed. That I’d read to him until he fell asleep. I wanted to be clear I wouldn’t stay with him the whole night. As much as I wanted to make that up, my awareness of his reaction to waking up in the middle of the night expecting me to be there, and I wasn’t was telling me to just be honest and walk him through this.
We went upstairs to begin the process. He wanted to be next to me the entire time. He actually held my hand for much of the journey up the stairs and into his room. When we got into the bathroom to start the shower, I started asking him questions about his fear…delicately.
“Can I tell you something? I asked.” “Sure.” He said. “When I’m afraid I talk about what I’m afraid of. When I do, my fear gets smaller and smaller.” His breathing became stronger and his voice grew louder “Daddy. I can’t tell you about him. He’s really, really scary and I don’t want to tell you about him. I don’t want to talk about him.”
Deep breath (Did I mention parenting is challenging some times)…
“Take a breath buddy. Take a nice deep breath. You’re safe. I’m here.” That seemed to bring him back. I continued with my questions – “Is he a mascot.” “Yes.” “What color is he? Is he red? Is he blue?” His fear remained. He really didn’t want to talk about him. I thought it would be beneficial to keep going (something inside said ‘be gentle. keep asking.’)
“Does he have a name?” I asked. He didn’t want to tell me his name. He said it was too scary. I gave him one – Ralph. “Can we call him Ralph?” “Ok daddy. Ok. We’ll call him Ralph.”
“You know, the more you tell me about Ralph, the more he can’t scare you. He can’t scare you if we keep talking about him.”
With my journey so far on this planet, experience has shown me the more I face my fears, the smaller they become. I realize this is a concept I’ve learned over 44 years so explaining it to a 4 year old takes a bit of tenderness (and luck).
Before we started reading his book, I asked him to join me in saying something to Ralph. He looked surprised. “What do you want to say to him?” “Not me buddy. Us.” It went something like this (and I had my son repeat me – twice)…
“Ralph. You’re not welcome here. I want you to leave. So, leave. Bye.”
Seemed simple enough.
When we began to read my son looked at me. He smiled. He said “Daddy. You know what? I don’t feel him anymore.” “That’s really, really, great buddy. I love you.”
I finished three chapters and he fell asleep.
This morning on our way to dropping him off at school, he said “Daddy. That really worked. I really didn’t feel him anymore.”
In those tender, tender moments when our children are completely open and counting on us to be there for them, it’s truly a privilege and honor to stand in that space of being a dad.