Jan 252010

It’s that time of year again, the time when my son is scared. When the days grow shorter and darker he traditionally develops a fear of – something. One year it was skeletons, one year it was masks, one year it was ghosts, one year it was robbers, this year it’s quite specific, a green skeletal devil with horns.

It all started at the beginning of November (yes, that’s three months ago, almost) when he sat in front of TV to watch something about a zoo. At 5 in the afternoon there was a trailer for a murder mystery. In this trailer there was a tiny blip showing somebody wearing a halloween costume with a green mask and devil’s horns.

The night before was the last night my son has slept in his bed since then. And if that wouldn’t have been unnerving enough he is also afraid of being alone. So when, for example, he is playing in his room, and I’m sitting in the kitchen, and then I want to get something from the basement, and I’d be unwise enough to open the actual door and get down the stairs there would be a wailing child running after me. And when I’d get up again he’d stand there, mad at me and screaming, “How dare you leave me alone? You know I’m scared!” On the other hand he will totally go to the supermarket alone and buy a toy. No problem there. It’s just being alone at the house. Or rather somewhere where he doesn’t see or here another person because we never ever leave him alone at the house.

When he is going to sleep there has to be someone with him in the next room (we have drawn the line at being in the same room) at all times. So I’m no longer allowed to watch DVDs in my very favorite chair in front of our big old TV, no I have to sit on the hard and cold kitchen bench with my laptop who then decides it doesn’t like this particular DVD. After that I go into my bedroom without having talked a word with my husband (who is in the annex, working on his new album) and get to bed, the bed I share with my son. I’m not allowed to turn off the light completely, and I have to push him back to his side of the bed repeatedly and with force because for some strange reason I don’t like to share my pillow. Also, repeatedly through the night there will be a clear, ringing voice calling, “Mama?” in near panic. Which makes me more awake than him and then, just when I have gone to sleep again, he asks again.

My husband and I have been taking turns in “night duty”, and once or twice a week he sleeps at my mother-in-laws place to give us a break. I only really realized how much I feel like being on a leash when yesterday while my son was away with his grandmother I sat in the kitchen knitting, and then wondered what my husband was doing. I sat there for a while and then it hit me: I could just stand up, leave the room and go over into the annex without someone yelling at me! Wow. Sweet freedom.

Now, for those of you not familiar with my son, he is not 18 months old, no, he’s 7 years. He knows perfectly well that he is safe in the house. Ever since he turned three we could leave him playing in one part of the house and go to the annex, at least briefly. He has always been afraid of the dark so he there’s a light in his room, and for quite some time now there had to be someone in the next room when he went to sleep. Once he had fallen asleep whoever was on duty that night could walk out, and then only return when it was time to got to sleep ourselves.

I have a big problem with this. I can’t sleep properly. When I hear anybody scream “Mama?” I have to suppress the urge to slap that child whoever it is. I have told everybody I’ve met for the past three months about this. I’d say I have a problem.

Now, I know that he is really scared. I know that his fear isn’t rational and I remember how it is at that age. That’s why he has a light on while falling asleep, and that’s why there is someone near. But then I also remember that even though I was afraid there were bears in the basement I still went there. Telling myself, “There are no bears in the basement, there are no bears in the basement.” all the time. And you know what? I never saw a single bear there.

My son on the other hand, my son who knows perfectly well that there are no strange devils lurking in the corners of our house, my son ends every talk about how we just please want to sleep again, and how we know that he is scared but that he is perfectly safe with the same sentence: “But I’m scared.” Yeah, we knew that already, thanks.

I bought nice educational books, I elevated his stuffed giraffe to a monster-slaying super-toy (worked for half an hour), bought him a magic slumber mouse (he was set on trying to sleep alone but then he went off to his grandma’s and the next night he was – too scared again).

Everybody we have talked to so far has said the following things:

  • every child is afraid of something
  • there are a lot of children who still sleep in their parents beds
  • this too will pass
  • maybe stickers will help
  • and the final thing, when we kept on saying, “Yeah, we tried that but it didn’t work.” or “Yeah, I knew that already.” then people say, “You have to get help.”

And you know what? They might be right. On the other hand it’s not as if I didn’t know anything about behavior modification or parenting. And our son is really, really stubborn. You know, I’m a pretty stubborn person but that’s nothing compared to him. I talked to a student who happens to have a son the same age as mine about what to do when your son is really rude and threatens to hit you, and he said, “Well, then he has to go to his room until he has calmed down.” And I looked at him, blinking for a couple of seconds with a blank look, and then I said, “And he just goes there?” And he said, “Well, if he doesn’t I make him.” That made me laugh really hard. I can, of course, lift my son up and carry him to his room, and I might even manage to close the door behind him but since we don’t own a key to that door there is nothing to keep him in there. I put him to his room, he comes out again, I put him back, he comes out again, I start screaming, he’s howling, I put him back… One time we spent 90 minutes pulling on opposite side of the door both of us screaming, and then he was only three years old. And when everything fails he just runs off to his grandmother.

Still I have decided not to let him oppress me any longer. He wants to wail behind me when I’m leaving the room? So be it. I also told him that he has to sleep in his room again. He’ll get a sticker for every night he spends in his own bed, and after two weeks we’ll go ice skating. Yesterday he actually fell asleep in his own room. My husband was lying next to him, but still. I went to bed at 11. At 11.30 he started calling me. Then he called again. Some time later he started crying. Then he called again. At 1 o’clock in the night I allowed him to sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor of my room…

Tonight we’re signing a contract, both of us. He will either sleep in his room alone without making a noise or he will go to my bedroom on tiptoes without disturbing me and stay in the sleeping bag. When he stays in his room until 6.45 there will be a sticker. 14 stickers equal a trip to the ice skating rink. There will be no discussions , no wailing, no nothing. I might have to add that we have a “no discussions about things I should do or buy for him after 6 in the evening”-rule. This child will have a debate about whether or not he will eat breakfast, come to the table or dress himself for school. I told him he’s free to not eat and walk to school in his pajamas, whatever he wants. Then he yelled at me for no making him stop reading when it was time to get ready. Very funny.

Wish me luck.

  7 Responses to “Green-eyed monsters under the bed”

  1. Liebe Susanne!

    Hm. Gar nicht einfach, was ihr da (alle 3!) durchmacht! Die Ägste Deines Sohnes klingen Deiner Beschreibung nach nicht wie die Ängste, die jedes Kind so hat, sondern wie richtige Angstzustände. Das eine ist mit dem anderen überhaupt nicht zu vergleichen, und meiner Meinung nach sehr ernst zu nehmen. Angstzustände sind was echt fieses. Auch ich rate Euch: Sucht Euch dringend professionelle Hilfe! Ich würde mich auf jeden Fall mal beraten lassen. Ob das was hilft? Keine Ahnung. Aber man soll ja nix unversucht lassen.

    Zum Belohnungssystem: Finde ich prinzipiell gut (in Kombination mit konsequentem Verhalten), um Kinder zu motivieren, und sie an gewisse Spielregeln zu gewöhnen.
    Ich fürchte aber, daß das in Bezug auf seine Ängste nicht ausreichen wird. Aber wie gesagt: Probiert es aus, laßt nix unversucht. Ein Patentrezept gibt es nie! Vielleicht hilft es ja doch…..

    Ganz liebe Grüße und die allerbesten Wünsche!

  2. I do wish you luck. And I never had to deal with this level of fear, either as a child or as a parent. So this is not the voice of experience. Nor the voice of criticism–no way.
    That said, I wonder if you could enlist his help or ask for his advice. Maybe he doesn’t hugely want stickers or to go skating. Maybe you need to ask him, “What else do you think would help?” Tell him the story about bears in the basement, and say that that worked for you; and ask him, what would have worked for him? Or what does he think might have worked better for you?
    I am wondering if he can think of things that would make things a bit better for him; and if a first step works, or even helps some, then maybe he’ll be able to brainstorm the next step. For example–you need to leave the room; what would make him feel better? A timer to hold in his hand–you’ll be back before the 5 minute gong goes off? Your watch–to return to you when you come back? Holding the ferocious stuffed toy that helped for a while, and might still be good enough for daylight? Take a picture (or several) of the safe places outside the home that he feels fine being alone in, and post them around the room? Or they live on the cell phone, and he can call them up? Is there a magic word charm that he would like to make up, and chant it as necessary? Would he feel better if he made his own magic wand? Or wrote/dictated/drew or illustrated his own story? Drew the monster–and then shredded it? Or cut it into tiny pieces? Or demolished it with a one-punch hole punch?
    I see that you have tried tons of ideas of your own, and that’s totally commendable, and you have been creative.
    But maybe he has, or could come up with, some input that would help? You dealt with the basement bears on your own. He may need to do some of that self-help too. “But I’m scared.” “What is something that you think that maybe we could do that would help?”
    All best wishes.

  3. Ich als ehemalige “Angstpatientin” würde auch sagen, dass Dein Sohn Panik entwickelt hat. Ich würde es jedenfalls medizinisch abklären lassen, denn das kann noch weiter auswuchern und sich noch länger hinziehen.
    ganz liebe Grüße

  4. Thanks for all your thoughtful comments.

    We already tried asking him what to do as well. We also talked about it, let him draw the devil, and my husband found the scene he was afraid of on the internet. They watched it together, and the actor pulls of his mask and is just a teenager. Still.

    As a child I didn’t have to deal with my fear all alone, I could talk about it with my mother and she suggested thinking about how the fear was not real, and also the “think of something happy”-strategy. Both of those helped me.

    We already have started making an appointment to get somewhat professional help with this.

    The contract we signed has helped him so that he has been falling asleep in his bed in his own room twice already. He still comes to my room at night but now he just slips into his sleeping bag on the floor and doesn’t disturb me that much.

  5. I don’t understand the fear thing, my kids are afraid in their own house during the day. The ask me why I’m not afraid of anything and I just say it’s because I’m grown up, I guess.

  6. There’s nothing I can add except to say that I am sorry and I hope your solution works. I believe that children want their parents so much that they are unable to draw a reasonable line between themselves and us, and that we have to be very firm in doing that for them. It is painful for all for a period, and can seem quite harsh to people who don’t believe in these methods.

  7. I have been reading your interesting blog for some time. And in general, I would say you are too hard on yourself in lots of matters! Anyhow I think you are doing a fabulous job on this issue and it sounds like you are already making some progress.
    To add my thoughts, I don’t think you should worry too much about the whys and wherefores of the fear. Yes, the fear is genuine, but talking about it and analysing it too much may just help it stick in his mind. It may become almost a habit.
    My advice would be to take it one step at a time and concentrate on the behaviour that causes you most distress. For me, I would say that would be disturbed sleep. I fall very quickly into the doldrums if my sleep is disturbed and that makes anything else that my kids do harder to deal with!
    So maybe it does not matter too much initially where he sleeps (on your floor) as long as he does not disturb you? Similarly maybe it does not matter if he wants to be with you in the evening as long as you are comfortable and can do the things you would normally do. Prepare to let him be close to you if that is what he needs, but do not let yourself be less comfortable or less happy in the process.
    Anyway, I would concentrate first on strategies to stop him waking you in the night and not get bogged down with the big picture. If he does wake you, be brief and not too sympathetic and may sure he knows you expect and believe he can deal with this on his own using the power of his mind.

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