Responsible, according to the dictionary, means: answerable or accountable; having a capacity for moral decisions and therefore accountable; capable of rational thought or action.
Here’s a different take on the word. Responsibility = response + ability; the ability to respond (appropriately).
You want to raise a responsible child, so you tell her what to do in every situation. You feel you know the appropriate response, and she will be well taken care of if only she follows your instructions to the letter. But you cannot predict every situation.
I was to pick my daughter up from school after a performance that got over late in the evening. I went to the room from which I was to pick her up. She wasn’t there. I went to the office. Not there. I went to the rehearsal room. Not there. I went to the auditorium. Not there.
By now, I was getting frantic. The school had begun to empty, with most parents and children having left, and only a handful of teachers still there. I was going from room to room asking teachers if they’d seen my daughter.
The teacher who dismissed them from the rehearsal room after the performance said, “They were to get their make-up off and then go to the rooms from which you were to collect them.”
I went back to the room from which I had to collect her. “She hasn’t come in. Her stuff is not here,” the teacher told me. She gestured for me to take a look at the few bags that were still on the tables – my daughter’s bag wasn’t there.
I didn’t know what to do, and was beginning to panic. The school grounds are large, most of the lights had been extinguished, and she was nowhere to be found. A few children who’d seen me rushing hither and yon were kind enough to say, “We saw her some time ago, but we don’t know where she is now.”
I went back in a real tizzy to the room from which I was to collect her, to find her standing calmly next to the teacher. I sagged onto a chair in relief. “Where were you?”
“Mom, my friend took ill. When we went to take our make-up off, she began vomiting. I stayed with her, and then handed her over to her parents. Then I came here, and I’ve been waiting for you ever since. You’re late.” (This last in true parental-displeasure style. 🙂 ) I made my explanations, and we declared peace. I collected her (officially 🙂 ), and we did the rounds, visiting all the rooms and teachers I’d been to, to tell them that I’d found her.
For the umpteenth time, I was grateful to have a responsible child.
Unforeseen situations arise all the time. If you want your child to develop the ability to respond appropriately (responsibility), you need to follow only one rule.
Let him respond.
Don’t keep making rules for every situation: “If this happens, you should do that.” You will make hundreds, if not thousands of rules, which will only confuse your child.
Instead, give him a few general, standing instructions. You might say, “Try and get to a phone and call me or another responsible adult (your partner, parent, a family member), don’t go with strangers, don’t ride with anyone unless you have my (or your partner’s) express permission to do so, don’t take food/drink offered by people you don’t know, don’t try to help someone who seems in distress (so many of these are scams, and your child may get into trouble from trying to help)…”
You cannot dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. Let your child respond. Let him know that you have confidence in his ability to handle a situation. Obviously, he will not do what you would have done in his place. But you have 20 or more years on him! You’d probably have done much worse than him if you were confronted with the same situation when you were his age.
If his response doesn’t yield the desired result or creates a problem, talk about it. Instead of scolding him for his ‘wrong’ (not as effective as you/he would have liked it to be, actually) response, talk about what why his response was less than ideal. Remember, he may still think his response was perfect, while you might be the one thinking it could have been improved! 🙂
If he too, feels less than satisfied with his response, discuss it. He will learn to consider more things while making a response. He will learn to come up with more possible responses. He will learn to evaluate those responses better. He will get the opportunity to practice making appropriate responses.
All of this will enormously increase his ability to respond to a situation.
And you will be raising a responsible child. 🙂
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
You love your child. (Duh! 🙂 ) That makes you a loving parent. Most of the time, you try to be a nice parent as well. You put in a lot of effort to make your child happy, give him what he wants, and generally keep things as pleasant as possible between you both.
You are shooting yourself in the foot.
It took me years to realize that there is a big difference between being a loving parent and a nice parent. In fact, there are 5 big differences.
1. As a loving parent, you work from your beliefs and convictions and stay true to them. If you change your belief, it is for a good, solid reason. A nice parent works to get approval from the child.
As a loving parent, you might frown on your child breaking the curfew rules. As a nice parent, you might relent ‘this one time’, because you want your child to think you are nice. Or because you think you are being nice.
2. If you are a loving parent, you are consistent. You make rules, decisions and choices that follow a particular line of thinking, and your child finds it easy to understand what you are all about – what you expect from her, what she can expect from you, what you would approve and disapprove of, what you value and what you don’t, and so on.
To be a nice parent, you need to be an acrobat, swinging from one end to the other of a perpetually shifting circus ground. Since ‘nice’ is a response from your child, her response will depend upon her mood. When she is feeling good and you refuse her a request, you may continue to be a nice parent. When she is feeling crotchety, and you deny her a second helping of dessert, you may suddenly stop being ‘nice’. You’re not really sure of your ground.
Your child is unsure too – of himself and of you. He doesn’t really know what behavior is okay and what is not, since so much seems to depend on your reaction at a particular moment. And that is always unpredictable.
3. As a loving parent, you are in it for the long haul. This is why you may choose to withhold approval even when it is due – maybe because your child is getting addicted to approval, maybe because he needs to learn to appreciate rewards other than your approval, maybe because he needs to look beyond approval…
A nice parent responds with what feels good at the moment. If you are being nice, you may respond to your child’s tantrums by pleading or cajoling or yelling or giving in (this is the last time!) or holding your ground… – with whatever you think will make the tantrum stop soonest. The tantrums continue, because your child is not sure when he might get lucky and get away with it.
4. You may seem unnecessarily stern, even harsh, if you are being a loving parent. You may choose to stand back and see your child fall, let her face problems, without doing anything to help her. She may wonder if you really love her. (“If you love me, you will help me, take my troubles away, make it easy for me…”). That doesn’t bother you, because you are in the business of being a loving parent, not a nice one, and you go about your business as usual.
If you want to be a nice parent, you will always step in to ease things for her, till one day, circumstances will make it impossible for you to ‘make the troubles go away’. I don’t know what you’ll come up with at that time, but you might be able to swing something.
5. As a loving parent, you aren’t always nice. But then you don’t really care about being nice.
As a nice parent, I’m not so sure you’re a loving parent. But you want to be one! “I’m sure it’s possible to be both – loving and nice, isn’t it?” you ask.
Sure it’s possible to be both loving and nice – but only occasionally. Most of the time, you can only pick one.
So which do you want to be: a loving parent or a nice one?
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
When a loved one dies, you are prepared for your child to feel grief. Depending on how you deal with grief, you will help your child deal with it too.
At various times, and depending on your child’s personal preferences, you can employ different solutions to help your child cope with grief. These might be (but aren’t limited to):
1. Holding your child – Unfortunately, this is used too little once children grow beyond 5 – 7 years of age. Your teenage son may not feel comfortable if you give him a full-frontal embrace as you did when he was a child, but you can definitely put your arm around him, or hold his arm, or use touch effectively to convey your understanding of and sympathy with his feelings of loss.
2. Talking – Your child may want to talk, or not. It’s easier if she wants to talk, because you will be able to understand some of the emotions she is grappling with. But if she isn’t, you can still draw her out. Share a story where a child is dealing with loss. This could be a true story of how you or anyone else your child connects with, had to experience loss as a child, and how you (or the person) dealt with it. If there is no true story, share a fictional story. Stories are a great way to obliquely approach issues either you or your child is not comfortable talking about openly.
3. Dedicating a project – Consider dedicating a project to the departed person. Every time your child is taken over by searing grief, he could write about what is troubling him at that time. An example:
If your child can’t handle walking into a house where the dog that welcomed him home is no more, let him write about it in a diary, or draw a picture of it. Or locate a photo of the pet jumping up at him in welcome. These little remembrances can then be collected in some form which would act as a remembrance to the pet.
Slowly, as your child begins to deal with the memories, the reality of life with the one who is gone emerges. Instead of being only the ‘beloved’ dog, he also becomes the ‘naughty’ dog who always chewed your child’s toys, the ‘greedy’ one who stole sausages and cookies out of plates when no one was looking (and sometimes even when they were! 🙂 ), the ‘irritating’ one who had to be taken out twice to do his business late at night in the winters… Balance begins to be restored.
You can formalize the remembrance in the form of a photo album which is sent to close friends and family, or you may even consider enrolling them into the project. In this way, you may all help each other find healing, peace, and acceptance.
4. Creating rituals – You may find it helpful to create rituals – anything that gives a sense of order to your child. “Granny loved roses, and every Sunday she cooked you a special meal, so we’ll buy a rose every Sunday to remember her.” It could be much simpler. ““Granny loved roses, and every Sunday she cooked you a special meal, so every Sunday you could learn the name of one variety of rose (or draw her a card with a rose on it).” “He loved reading books, so we’ll buy you a book every month in memory of his love for books.”
You need to be careful when creating rituals – create and execute with a light touch; you don’t want your child getting obsessed with the performance of these rituals.
When a loved one dies, you are prepared for your child to feel grief. But your child may be feeling many other emotions which might take you by surprise. You might need to work hard to get your child even to acknowledge them, but most children do feel these emotions in small or large measure when a loved one dies.
These are the emotions you need to address if you want your child to be equipped with the means to handle loss, especially loss due to death:
1. Confusion – “What will happen now?” No matter how young your child may be, explain to her in a way she understands, what comes next. What will happen to the body? What happens to the dead person’s effects – clothes, toiletries, papers, car – all the detritus of life? What are the rituals your family will follow? What is their significance? How might these rituals be different from those your child is familiar with through movies, TV, story books etc? What happens to the person’s room / house?
Answering these questions will help her feel more settled about all the chaos that attends a death. It will help her to feel like she’s part of what’s going on. Depending upon the circumstances, you may even want her to share in some of these tasks / rituals, such as choosing a favorite photo, or deciding which memento she’d like for herself, or whom to give some of the effects to.
2. Fear – “I once did / thought / said something bad to / about the person who has died. If they are angry with me, will they come back to haunt me? Will they send me ‘bad luck’? Will they make me or someone else die?” Draw out your child to speak about these emotions. Again, stories are great for this. Then help him deal with the fear.
3. Anger – “Why did … have to die?” The subtext being: “Why now? Why this way? Why not someone else?” Explain that everyone has to die sometime, and the time and manner of our death is not of our own choosing. (This won’t work if the person has committed suicide, in which case you need to deal with far greater feelings of fear, confusion, and guilt.)
I once read a story that might help you answer the question “Why did it have to be …?”
Someone lost his mother, and he raved, “Why my mother? Why my mother? Why not someone else?”
His father, who was equally broken-hearted, replied: “Okay. Let’s say it shouldn’t have been your mother. Whose mother should it have been? Pick a friend – name one – whose mother should have died instead of yours.”
The child could give no answer, but the silence was the beginning of his acceptance of the fact of his mother’s death. Death has to happen. To everyone. The only thing you can do – for yourself, for your loved ones, and for the one who is no more, is to accept it, and move on.
4. Guilt – “I didn’t do enough for … when they were alive, and now I can’t ever do what I meant to do.” “I was mean, and I didn’t get a chance to say I’m sorry.” All of us suffer from guilt – it is part of the human condition, and the best we can hope for is to make our peace with it. Explain to your child that no matter how much love he had shown for the dead person, he would always reproach himself; he would always feel that there was more he could have done. Tell him this feeling is natural. Let him know that the departed person would hate for him to feel so burdened. He (the child) was much loved by the dead person, who would hate to see him so sad and feeling guilty about non-issues. Essentially, you’re telling your child: “Be happy for …’s sake.”
5. Responsibility – “… died because I did / did not do something.” Does this sound ridiculous? Maybe, but it isn’t. Children have a tremendously inflated sense of their own importance. They feel that the sun rises and sets by their wish. So it is natural that they understand every event as a natural result of something that they did or did not do. Death is an event too. And you need to help them realize that powerful as they are, they do not control death.
Maybe your child’s toy tripped up the grandparent, who fell and injured herself so seriously that she died. Your child will feel responsible, because it was her job to put her toys away, and she had been reminded to do this even on the fateful day, but had postponed doing it. And then – her grandmother tripped on the toy…
You could try explaining in many ways: “Gran had to go some way – it happened to be this way. It was just chance.” “So many people trip over toys (and other things), but they don’t always hurt themselves enough to die from it.” “The toys lay around the floor every day for weeks and months and years, without anybody being harmed by them.” “Gran never tripped over anything usually, even the toys in her way. Maybe she lost her balance only on that day. Maybe she was dizzy from being unwell or from some medication she was taking”…
Helping your child cope with the death of a loved one involves much more than just dealing with feelings of loss and grief. And you need to be ready to help him deal with it all. It won’t be easy. It will take time. It will seem like you are moving two steps back for every step you take forward. But it will happen; you and your child will cope – well.
I wish you healing and peace.
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
A loved one has died.
What can I say? What can anyone say? Nothing very much that will make a difference, really. In the first few days and weeks, you barely realize that the person is gone. This, despite being in the midst of grieving family and friends, and busy with all the rites and rituals attending the death. Everyone offers you their condolences – no one says anything to your child (especially if he is little).
People (including perhaps yourself) don’t say much to a child who is bereaved for a host of reasons:
1. They feel the child does not, or will not, understand – “He’s too young…”
2. They feel the child will not miss the departed person as much as the ‘adults’ will – “Children are so young, so resilient; they will ‘get over’ the grief quickly. Their very youth insulates them against feeling so deeply.”
3. They feel a child, by virtue of not being an adult, does not need condolences – “This is the ‘big, important people vs. silly little kids’ argument.”
4. They don’t know what to say to a child – They don’t know the child’s vocabulary level, her comfort with strangers talking to her, her relationship with the deceased, how deeply or lightly she is affected, what she thinks of the whole thing, whether she will accept their condolences or not, how she will react to what they say to her…”
All these reasons are bosh! They are just convenient rationalizations by adults, because we’re so thrilled – worse, we’re so self-righteous! – we’re following social norms ‘correctly’, that we couldn’t be bothered to think about what we are (or are not) doing.
So how can you help your child cope with the death of a loved one?
You’ll be happy to know there is no complicated process or procedure involved. There’s just one thing that you need to do – over and over and over again. Okay, make that two things.
Let me give you some instances of how these two things could be used.
If your child has lost his other parent, you are probably in emotionally dire straits yourself. You feel bereft of your partner, lost, rudderless, maybe even abandoned – whether you are a man or a woman doesn’t enter the equation at this point. A part of you may feel very strongly that now, you need to ‘be both parents’ to your child (yet another ‘weird’ commonly-held notion – one of only a few million! 🙂 ) As a result, you may keep grabbing your child in an emotional manner, squeezing him to yourself, perhaps in an attempt to show him affection as your late partner would have done, or perhaps showing your child that he is doubly loved even though there’s only you in the parent role from now on. Your child may shrug off these hysterical embraces – it doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the parent who’s gone. Maybe it’s just that on top of everything else, this over-protective behavior of yours is simply too much for him to take.
1. Stop. Stop doing the first thing that comes into your head. Yes, you are bereaved too, but you’re supposed to be the adult here. And you want to know how you can ‘help’ your child cope, not give your child more to cope with, which is what you may well be doing (unknowingly, but still – )!
2. Think. All the times you’ve grabbed him in a bear hug in moments of extreme emotion, how has he reacted? Has he shied away? Or leaned into you? Or not let you go? That’s your answer! Doing as your child wants to do is the way you’ll help him cope with the death.
Maybe it is a grandparent who’s gone. And this grandparent baked your child’s favorite chocolate chip cookies every Sunday. It was ‘their’ special time together. And now, Granddad is no more. Instinctively, wanting to ‘make up’ for the gone-forever Granddad, wanting to ‘make sure your daughter doesn’t miss him’, you begin mixing the ingredients for the cookies, asking her if she will join you in a faux-cheery voice, trying to imitate late Granddad’s accent, voice and manner.
1. Stop. Your daughter may think you are infringing upon her relationship with her grandfather. She might prefer having him dead and missing him, to playing the pretend game of normalcy with you, while she inwardly cringing at making a mockery of a relationship that was (and might well continue to be) almost sacred for her!
2. Think. If that is her special ‘thing’ with Granddad, don’t take the special-ness’ away. Maybe she misses both the activity and the person with whom she shared it – and missing both make his death ‘real’ for her. Let her go through the loss – get yourself out of the way. Take your cue from her.
Your child may want to ‘talk about it’ all the time. And your instinct is to be quiet. Before you forbid him from talking about the dead person for fear he’ll turn morbid,
2. Think. Let your child know that any reaction he has, is okay. If he wants to talk non-stop about the person who has passed on, that may be his way of grieving. Let him grieve. Let him know it is okay for him to grieve the way he wants to.
You child may refuse to discuss the person’s dying. You don’t know what’s going through her head. She may be afraid that talking about death might ‘spread’ it, taking away yet another person from the family. Before you give in to your instinct to force her to talk about the person who has died (‘so that she should not keep her feelings bottled up but should give vent to them; she will feel relieved, she will begin to heal,” you feel…),
2. Think. There’s a good reason she’s not talking about the death or the dead person. At least, it’s a reason good enough for her. Try and find out what’s going through her mind before you jump in like a bull in a china shop. Not that you mean to, of course…
1. Stop your instinctive reaction.
2. Think about what your child wants, thinks, feels. Think about what impression your instinctive reaction might create in your child.
Now that you’ve stopped and you’ve thought, decide on a course of action, and follow it.
I know – it feels like you’ve decided to jump, and when both your feet are in the air, you’re wondering whether it’s a good time to be landing on the ground in the near future. You’re on shaky ground, always tentative, unsure, lost and confused.
This is good. Because it tells your child it’s okay to be unsure, lost and confused – about the dead person, about the ones who are still alive, and about everything else as well. You don’t have to say it. He will understand from your manner.
And you would have helped more than you’ll ever know.
Some parents have written to me asking for suggestions on how they could explain the concept of death to their children.
There are 2 aspects to explaining death to children (or to anyone else). One is to help them be less afraid of death. This in itself is a tall order. How many of us can claim to have come to terms with the fact that with each passing moment, we are closer to death? Have we even begun to examine our own attitude towards death, our own fear of it? The answer is probably “no”. And still we want to help our children overcome the fear of death? Parents are a strange breed indeed!
The other aspect of death that you might want to address with your child is how to deal with the death of a loved one.
In the first case, the child himself will be gone. In the second, a dear one is gone, and the child needs to deal with the loss, the grief, perhaps the guilt, and maybe even an increased fear of his own death.
Today I’ll tell you some ways in which I have explained death – not only to my child, but to other children as well. In the next post, I’ll give you ideas on how you could help a child deal with the loss of a loved one.
“Where did I come from?” This is one of the questions that most fascinates children. As they grow, they learn about puppies and kittens and calves, they learn about birds hatching eggs, they see seeds grow into plants and trees, and they ask, “Where did I come from?”
Depending on your beliefs and your style of parenting, you come up with some answer to the question. But as your child grows, she wants more detail. (“How did I get into Mom’s tummy?” – a question you might have been dreading! 🙂 More on answering this in a subsequent post.) Given that your child will repeat this question innumerable times over the years, and ask for different kinds of information each time she asks “Where did I come from?”, I hope you are giving / have given some thought to what you’ll say.
I won’t tell you what to say. There are innumerable books, websites, movies out there which will give you ideas. You also have your memory of your own childhood as a resource, as well as ideas, suggestions and the experience of friends and family. For sure you’ll come up with something.
What is important is that you believe in whatever you come up with, that you are comfortable with the point of view, the level of detail, the language and the explanation. That is the only way your child will accept your answer. No matter how far out or how contrary to accepted belief, as long as you believe in the ‘truth’ of your version, your explanation will work.
In case you’re want to remind me that I’ve gone off-track (you’re supposed to be explaining death to a child, not how she was born), rest assured. I’m still with the program. 🙂
Ever since she was little, one of my daughter’s favorite ‘stories’ has been the story of how she was born. Of course, now that she’s a happening, know-it-all teen, the ‘wonder’ has gone out of the story, though it probably still has some nostalgic value. 🙂
For each of the ideas below, I repeat: use them with caution, only after you have thought each one through and are convinced about the statement. Each ‘answer’ you provide might raise a host of further questions, and unless you’re sure of your beliefs, it would be better not to use the answer. Also, different answers will work at different times with different children. You know yourself and your child, so pick what you think will work, or use these as inspiration to come up with your own ideas. Do share in the comments – your ideas, experience, and feedback.
Ideas of how you could explain death to your child:
1. It’s like going to sleep: “When you are asleep, you don’t know what is happening around you. I might enter the room, or change your diaper, or pick you up, and you wouldn’t know it. Do you remember how you fell asleep in the car that day, after we’d gone to the zoo? When you woke up, you were in your bed. You don’t remember what happened in between, but many things happened. Death is a bit like that. Things go on, but the dead person is not a part of it.”
Then, extend the logic. “If you’re not part of it, you don’t miss it. So there is nothing to be afraid of.”
2. It’s like going away: “When you go to the park to play, you are not at home. You’ve gone away from home. Dying is like that – people who die go away. (We don’t know where they go.) When you are away from the house, it’s not necessary that you are sad or lonely or frightened. You may be enjoying yourself enormously with your friends. I keep calling you to get home and do your homework, but you’re having so much fun that you don’t want to come back; you want to keep playing outside. So if death is like going away, it doesn’t mean it has to hurt or be painful or sad or lonely. When you’ve gone away to the park, you could be happy or sad, having fun or fighting with your friends – anything could be happening. But that is true of life at home too! You could be happy or sad, having fun or fighting at home as well. It’s all happening in a different place – that’s all.”
3. You have died before, only you don’t remember – This is my favorite explanation! 🙂 “When you were a little baby inside Mom’s / my tummy, you only knew darkness. Everything around you was soft and wet, all the sounds that reached you were muted. Nobody ever touched you, you only felt vibrations – like when a heavy truck goes past and you feel its movement in your body. You were safe and comfortable. That was your life inside the tummy. But nature does not allow babies to live inside the mom’s tummy forever. So you had to come out. You came out into bright light, into a cold dry room, with strange voices talking loudly, plastic gloves touching you. I’m sure you must have hated it!
We (your parents) welcomed you with joy. ‘Our baby is born!’ we said, delighted. We couldn’t stop smiling. But for you, for the little baby, it was like a death. The place you were in, the way you lived earlier (inside the tummy) was your life. And that life ended – it changed. You went away to another world – that is, you came into this world. So the death you think of as the end of this life is not necessarily bad – the more you think about it, the more anxious you will get, but that anxiety will not change anything. Everyone has to die, but dying out of this life may mean being born in another place. And guess what? You actually celebrate the day you died inside the tummy – you celebrate it with cake and candles and gifts as your birthday! 🙂 🙂
4. What if nobody died? – This is a great way of getting children to see why death in the abstract is desirable. Ask your child this open-ended question, and keep asking questions to each of her responses. It will lead to the realization that it is important that living things should die. A hypothetical conversation:
You: What if nobody ever died?
Your child: Then people would live forever! Nobody would have to go away.
You: Where would these people live? We complain already of so much traffic on the roads, so many people without jobs, too many children trying to secure admission in too few ‘good’ schools, too many people dying of hunger, too many people without homes. If nobody ever died, where would all these people live? Where would they find enough food?
Your child: (Some answer.)
You: And what would these people do with their time?
Your child: They would play/watch movies/have fun/shop (whatever is your child’s “fun thing” at the moment).
You: For how long? You like playing, but can you imagine Granddad playing for hours in the park? When you go for a walk with him, you complain that he walks too slowly. What would you do if you lived to be that age and you lived forever? Even as a child, you come home tired after playing for a few hours. How would you like to just keep playing all through the day every single day? Believe it or not, you’ll be bored.
“Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.”
Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC)
As dusk begins to fall, you draw the curtains closed and switch on the lights. Everything is well-lit and clearly visible. As the evening wears on, you finish your routines of the day, and put your child to bed. You switch the light off, and shut the door.
A scream wakes you up in the middle of the night. She’s had a nightmare.
We are so used to using our eyes all the time that not being able to see clearly puts us in a state of panic. Yes, even adults keenly feel the loss of control when we cannot see what is around us. Naturally, your child will also panic if she can’t see clearly.
Adding to the problem, she has a vivid imagination, and a strange mix of fairy tales, folk lore, and characters in story books and on TV thrive in her head. All of which are a volatile combination for a nightmare.
Here are some ways you can help your child overcome these fears:
1. Go gently into the night – When twilight falls, don’t be in a hurry to draw the curtains and switch on the lights. Sit quietly in the fading light, or talk of ordinary things. Point out to your child how familiar objects like the chair on which she is sitting, the bed, the toy hanging by the wall – all look different as the light changes towards dark. Sit talking like this till it is properly dark. Show her that darkness is relative. Show her the night sky. We always say that the night sky is black. But is it really? Let her look and see for herself that rather than pure black, the sky is actually a deep dark blue. (Did you ever observe this?)
If she shows signs of fear, talk about it. When is it so dark that she is scared? If you do this for a few evenings, she will begin to be more comfortable with less light, which is all you want to achieve for the moment.
The nightmares will probably continue, because instead of a gradually fading light, she will wake into a sudden state of being surrounded by darkness.
2. Sit talking with him in a darkened room. Draw the curtains closed. Now it is dark – as dark as it is likely to get in the room. Ask him to look at the darkest corner. Hold his hand or hold him in your arms or seat him in your lap, if that is what he wants. Keep looking at the darkest part of the room. Slowly, he will be able to see that what looked like the darkest part of the room is not really dark. There is some light even there, however little it may be. Then, ask him to look around the dark room. After looking in the darkest corner, the room doesn’t seem dark! Objects are clearly outlined! He can ‘see’ in the dark!
3. Graduate to walking with him around the room in the dark. What you are seeking is greater comfort with lower and lower levels of light.
4. Create a gentle game to play in the dark – It could be something like you will call things by a different name in the dark. Suggest making up nonsense words, if you feel that will work better with her. So ‘table’ may be called ‘simsim’ and so on. As you keep playing this game, she will begin to feel that the world of the dark may be different from the world of the light (which it is! 🙂 ), but it is familiar.
5. If it’s monsters that are the culprit, you might make up a bravery dialogue, or practice a war theme. He can be the soldier that will fight the Dark Monster. Make up lines for both the monster and your child. Be guided by him. For instance, some children feel a monster will nibble at their toes. They feel most vulnerable on their toes. For such a child, the story might go like this:
Dark Monster: Wake up, child! I have come and I am going to eat your toes. (You be the Dark Monster and start the story telling, but keep your volume low – you don’t want to scare him even more!)
What makes your child feel brave? Is there a magic weapon? It doesn’t have to be a gun or a sword. You can make a talisman of any object he is attached to. His favorite marble? His special yellow car? Whatever!
Your child: Haha! Fat chance, Dark Monster! You’ll never get near my toes because I’ve got my special yellow car. If it catches you, it’ll throw you into space, and you’ll be lost forever! Hahaha! (He probably won’t sound very convinced to begin with, but practice works wonders! 🙂 )
Dark Monster: Oh no! Please, please! NOT your yellow car! Don’t bring your yellow car near me. (Yes, all the drama you can summon, with bells and whistles on! 🙂 )
Your child: I’m warning you – you have only one chance. Disappear right now, or my yellow car will come and get you!
Does this sound artificial to you? Maybe. Even the monster sounds artificial to you, doesn’t it? But it’s real to your child. So this ‘victory over the bad guy’ scenario will also sound real to your child. It will ease his fear, and he will sleep deeper and better.
Are you objecting on the grounds that you are teaching your child to use a crutch, instead of teaching her to ‘be brave’? Come on! Think of all the times you’ve been scared – you’ve used a crutch too, so don’t make such a big deal out of it.
6. Keep a bright light handy for her to switch on if she awakes from a nightmare.
7. Keep a small nightlight on anyway, if you feel that works well.
8. Debrief – in the morning, in the daytime, discuss the nightmare. Learn the details, and modify your story to take care of those details as well. The monster may have an antidote to the yellow car. Well, your child has yet another powerful weapon at her command. Maybe the monster is very ticklish, and its secret fear is that someone will tickle it. Every child knows about tickling. Just let your child threaten the monster with being tickled.
A few words of caution:
2. Don’t try any strategy every single day, unless your child initiates it. If he says, “Dad, what will I say to the Awful Ghost if he comes tonight?” get into it with gusto. But don’t make him practice his lines every night before bedtime!
3. Don’t try these strategies all at once – some will work better than others, and different ones will work under different circumstances. In fact, different tips may work for different fears. Go gently with the flow.
All the best to you! Tell me which ones you tried, what worked, what didn’t, which ideas you’ve already employed, and which new ones you’ve come up with. And now – good night and sweet dreams! I’ll see you in the morning! 🙂
Your child has just begun to sleep the night through (without any bed-wetting incidents) and you’re looking forward to doing the same after years of disturbed-sleep nights. A ear-piercing scream shatters your illusions. Your child has had a nightmare, and you are back in the nightmarish world of waking up again and again in the middle of the night to soothe your child.
Apparently, of all human beings, children in the age group 5 – 9 are the ones most prone to nightmares. Also, the incidence of nightmares amongst children in this age group is very high – often more than once a week.
Nightmares leave a child feeling insecure, scared, and sometimes paralyzed with fear. As your child begins to understand fear, he begins to fear the feeling of fear.
Franklin D. Roosevelt put it well when he said in his first inaugural address in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes…”
Where does this fear come from? I believe it comes from two sources.
The first is that your child begins to realize in a practical manner that you (the parent) are a separate person from him. Not only are you a separate body, but you have a separate heart and a separate mind. He realizes that you think, feel and respond differently to people and situations than he does. He wonders if he has sufficient ‘hold’ on you; he wonders whether some day the differences may not become so great that you separate from each other.
Till today, your presence meant food, security, shelter, love; his whole life is wrapped up in you. Since he has associated so closely and deeply with you, he finds it hard to believe that he can live separately from you. So he begins to fear separation from you. This is one kind (and source) of fear.
The other is the fear that you put into your child. Oh yes, you do! As you try to civilize your child, prepare him for socialization, teach him the ‘rules’ of polite society, you use fear as a tool. In some cases, it may be as obvious as: “If you don’t eat your food and get into bed quickly, the Scary Monster will come and get you!” You may think this is a bit of a joke. Your child doesn’t. He is too young to understand the difference between reality and fantasy. Every experience is new and fantastic to him (fantastic in the sense of fantasy-like). You are jaded and blasé about bath showers and dogs on the street and blowing bubbles and clouds and raindrops and shiny toys and sticky mud; he is not. It is all new, all exciting, and all fantasy to him.
So your joke of a Scary Monster is a real-life Scary Monster to him. The Monster may be so scary that you don’t even want to describe him! This creates yet another problem. If you say the Scary Monster has green teeth, then any person or animal or creature that does not have green teeth is automatically not the Scary Monster. But if there is no clarity on what makes the Scary Monster scary, then anyone and anything could be the Scary Monster!
You can also induce fear in your child using subtle means. As he grows, you want to control and channel his excitement into the ‘right’ paths. You don’t really want him looking at cloud shapes for hours every day – unless it helps his artistic skills. You don’t want her poking around in messy mud – unless she’s showing signs of becoming a sculptor.
So you manipulate your child’s behavior. You say, “If you keep looking at the clouds, you will ‘waste’ so much time! Instead, you could be doing ‘fun’ things, like playing in the park, solving a jigsaw, reading a book.” If he listens, well and good. If not, you begin to withdraw from him. You frown. You clearly express your displeasure, you withdraw or withhold your approval of him. More separation – more fear.
You may disagree with me. You may say, “At times, you have to teach a child to feel some fear.” I understand what you’re saying.
At first, your child is not afraid of anything. She will happily climb onto the balcony railing and jump off the fourth storey – down to the ground. She would do this because she simply doesn’t know enough to be afraid of how many bones she will break when she falls. In order to keep her safe, you feel you have to teach her the feeling of fear.
How will you stop her running across a busy road? You need to tell her that if she does that, some vehicle may hit her. She will hurt herself and it will cause her physical pain. You can’t explain to her that running across the road might kill her because she won’t understand the concept of death.
So you start teaching her fear.
As your child gets on with the business of living and growing, as he meets other people (children and parents), watches, listens, reads, plays, thinks, imagines and understands, he begins to knit together different thoughts and sensations. The worst ones come together as fears, and they are expressed in nightmares.
So your child is screaming with fear, and you’ve rushed to attend to him. You hold him, pat him or caress him, and say, “It’s nothing. Don’t worry. Everything is fine. You’re safe. There are no monsters, there’s nothing to be afraid of – it’s only darkness.”
This is a meaningless string of words, but you will always say this – without fail. 🙂 (I know, because this was my first reaction for so many years!)
I ask you: if you are unwell and you feel you have all the symptoms of some dreaded disease and you’re sharing your fears with me and I say to you, “Don’t worry. Everything’s fine. You’ll be okay.”
Would you believe me? I doubt it. I don’t think you’d even listen till I reach the end of the words. You’d have switched off, because the very fact that I was responding this way meant I wasn’t listening when you were sharing your fears.
Your child’s fears are real. As far as she is concerned, the darkness is a real entity that she is actively scared of. She’s telling you she’s frightened of it, and you react by saying there is nothing to be scared of! This is a ridiculous reaction on your part. Natural, but no less ridiculous for being natural.
So stifle your natural reaction for a while. Your child is scared. Indulge her.
Here’s a possible scenario between a child and a parent:
Child: I’m scared!
Parent: What scared you?
Child: The dark! I woke up and couldn’t see anything!
Parent (instead of saying “There’s nothing to be afraid of in the darkness”): You were scared because you couldn’t see?
Child: Because it was dark.
Parent: But at night, before you went to bed, it was dark outside! You weren’t scared then.
Child: I wasn’t scared because I could see things – even if it was dark outside.
Parent: When we play peek-a-boo, or hide-and-seek, or blind-man’s-buff, you need to close your eyes for a while. Do you feel scared then? After all, you can’t see anything if your eyes are closed.
Your child will respond. Carry the conversation forward – step by step. Don’t force your point of view. Listen and respond to what your child is saying. As you engage your child in conversation, you will show him a logical way of looking at things. This will not remove the fear, but it will move the focus of the conversation away from the fear. Your child will begin to calm down.
As you keep talking calmly to your child, the sound of your voice will further soothe him. If you have switched the light on, the removal of darkness will dispel the ghosts or monsters or other things he fears. Keep holding him. If he doesn’t want to leave you, either get into his bed or take him into bed with you.
Don’t worry that you’re encouraging indiscipline. Unless he’s at peace, he won’t go back to sleep, and you won’t be able to go back to sleep either. In which case, it hardly matters whether he’s awake in his bed or in yours.
Let him drift back to sleep. Now it’s your call whether you want to put him back in his bed or stay with him.
In the next post, I’ll share tips on what you can do over the long haul to help your child get over these fears.