When my daughter was younger and before I better understood highly sensitive children (afflinks), we drove past Seattle’s Fremont Troll and it scared the heck out of her. She dubbed it the second scariest thing in the universe, coming in on her list only behind the scary mice from the Nutcracker ballet.
Now, this was a tricky one, because we’d both seen the troll. I couldn’t deny it was there; she didn’t imagine it. It was, and is, real.
Bedtime was a mess for a long time thereafter. Eventually, it got easier again…for awhile. But sure enough, before long (and always just as I thought her fear was behind us), the troll would raise its metaphorical head in her bedroom. It became the bane of her existence.
Using my adult logic, I told her it was made of stone and that it couldn’t move. It was just a statue. We delved more deeply into physiology than I thought we would at her age, but she wanted to know everything about how real bodies work versus this stone one.
She certainly didn’t talk about it often, but if something were to keep her up at night, this was it. So, I did some research about children’s fears. One of the things I learned is that logic doesn’t always “fix” fear; in fact, it rarely does. Sure, if we’re using our rational mind, it does. But the part of our brains that processes fear rationally doesn’t reach maturity until about age 25*. So, um, good luck, kids!
Knowing this, you see there’s not a lot of sense into talking to a part of our kids’ brains that can’t completely comprehend the message. Scary is scary; fear is fear. Sure, you can (and should) let a child know when something isn’t actually a danger to them (and why), but neither logic nor telling them they shouldn’t be afraid will address the root of the problem. In fact, telling them not to be afraid might have the effect of making them feel you don’t “hear” their concerns. Even as an adult, if another adult were to tell me I shouldn’t feel my feelings, their advice would go over like a lead balloon. My feelings are valid to me. My child’s feelings are equally valid to her.
So, what can you do when your child expresses a fear, real or imaginary, and you want to support him through it? How can you solve the problem?
This is a tricky one for adults because it feels counterintuitive, but our best option isn’t to do something. We can’t fix a problem that’s not our own. Instead, empathize with your child (highly sensitive or not). Whether it’s a monster in the closet, a fear of the dark, or many other common childhood fears, the process is often the same. Here’s what I had to learn.
First, I had to learn how to actively listen. Ironically, this means talking (and “solving”) less. I had to refrain from offering my logic and suggestions. If you’re anything like me, it will likely feel uncomfortable to you, and might even feel like you’re reinforcing the opposite of what you want to convey. Much of active listening involves playing back what you’ve heard.
The most thorough description I’ve read of active listening, with loads of examples for all ages (yep, I mean all), is in this phenomenal book. I highly recommend it–it goes well beyond what you’ll read here and is an amazing tool to help foster connection and encourage your kids–even older ones–to open up to you. Heck, even my marriage works better when I use the tools therein, but I digress. (Note: I thought I knew what active listening entailed until I read the details. It’s not quite as obvious as it sounds, but is an incredibly helpful book for adults. For a kids’ “how-to” book about managing worries and anxiety, this book is great.)
Here’s how active listening to process the fear transpired in our house:
Her: “Why is the scary troll so scary?”
Me: “You feel really afraid when you think about the troll.”
Her: “Yes. It’s too scary for me and I want it to go away.”
Me: “You wish it would disappear forever. I see how hard it is to fall asleep when you’re scared.”
Her: “It’s SO hard, Mommy! I keep thinking about it. Please don’t leave the room.”
Me: “I’ll stay with you. I’m here for you and I love you.”
Was it really the troll keeping her up, or was she afraid of being alone and using it as a scapegoat? It doesn’t matter; she needed support and wanted my presence, so I gave it to her. We continued this way for many a night. She wasn’t ready for more. Knowing my child as I do, pushing her beyond where she’s comfortable would’ve backfired. It always works better when I trust her timing. In various ways, she indicated that this conversation alone was exactly what she needed. Once she knew I was staying, sleep would come quickly for her, knowing she was heard and supported.
I knew she was ready for the next phase of processing her fear when I tried something new–integrating the troll into a story–and she didn’t push back on my attempts. When I’d tried earlier in the process, she’d nervously asked me to stop, so I did. When she listened to the story, I knew she was ready.
With this, I learned to play it out. By that, I don’t mean I waited to see what happened; I made the object of her fear a little less frightening through play (without minimizing her concern). It’s was a fine line; I made sure she felt fully supported and emotionally safe before I tried it. One night, I added this:
Her: “Why is the scary troll so scary?”
Me: “It really scares you. (Thoughtful pause.) You know…I wonder how it would look if it were pink.”
Her: “Less scary.”
Me: “Yeah. I’m going to paint it pink. And paint its hair purple.”
Her (slightly smiling): “And its eye, pink sparkle.”
Every night, we’d mentally paint the troll different colors.
After that, we graduated to the next level: “I’m going to tell you a story where it becomes a pink helper troll. The troll isn’t scary in this story; in fact, it’s only a costume to scare away the scary mice (from the aforementioned Nutcracker ballet). This troll protects children…”
She wanted this story for a long time. Eventually, she contributed to the storytelling. This troll became one of the best do-gooders of any character she knew.
All along the way (and during daylight hours only), I’d been suggesting that one day, we go visit the troll that started it all. Up until this point, she had steadfastly refused. I respected her refusal. Putting myself in her shoes, I wouldn’t want someone to force me to literally face one of my strongest adult fears up close, if I weren’t ready.
I also didn’t bring up the troll proactively. When I tried that approach, it seemed to increase her anxiety about it. The process worked better when the troll just found its way into her requests from time to time, as it always did. Sometimes, weeks would pass before it would rear its head again. And each time, we dealt with it, and I tested the waters to see if we could move forward a bit. I learned how important it was to trust her timing.
One day while talking about it, she asked if we could go and paint a door on the troll. Although I knew adding any form of permanent graffiti on a public work of art wouldn’t be acceptable, I felt hopeful and intrigued.
Me: “Yes, we can go visit the troll. And tell me more. Why would you paint a door on it?”
Her: “Because the troll isn’t really a troll. He’s just a shell filled with chocolate cake, and if we paint a door, we can open it and go inside and get some cake.”
Me: “Yes, we can do that. Permanent paint isn’t allowed on the troll, but I wonder if we can draw a door on it with chalk. Would that work?”
Her: “Yes, it would. Let’s do that. Let’s go put the chalk in the car now.”
She chose purple, and we embarked upon our very real mission to face hear fear and get the imaginary cake from the troll.
Once we got to the troll, though, she announced, “Mommy, I don’t want to draw on it anymore.”
My heart sank. I assumed her fear had come back and that we were back to square one (or at least close to it).
Much to my surprise, she matter of factly added, “I don’t need the chalk because I’m not afraid of it anymore. It’s not scary. It’s just…a statue.”
Wow. All that fear came undone in a single moment; a single awakening.
A lot of single moments, that is. It took a lot of active listening. It took a lot of “baby steps,” meeting her right where she was emotionally–encouraging progress, and promoting her ability to conquer her fear without forcing it. This wasn’t a band-aid solution. She wouldn’t “get over it” just by being instructed to do so. It took time and patience. Most of all, it took trust.
It’s still awhile before my child is a teenager, but I want her to be fully rooted in the fact that I do hear her. I want to build the foundation that I can see her perspective before the issues get trickier. I want her to know that I get it, whatever “it” turns out to be.
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