Try to remember what it was like when you were small and you lay in bed in the dark at night, afraid. If you have a better than average memory, you can recall the monster under the bed, the witch in the closet, the skeleton that tapped at your window with a bony finger.
Maybe you smile now when you remember those fears, because of course there was no monster, no witch, no skeleton – only shadows and a tree branch being blown by the wind.
You were probably 3 or 4 years old. You called for mom or dad to come protect you and maybe they came and sat beside you for a while; maybe they came and yelled at you to go to sleep; but whichever, mom or dad was there, and pretty soon it was morning.
Fast forward through a year or two of mornings, to the day you realized that while they could protect you from monsters under the bed, there were real monsters in the world against whom they just might be helpless.
- How were they going to protect you from a kidnapper climbing in the window if they were sound asleep in their bed down the hall?
- How were they going to save you from a fire suddenly engulfing the house; hadn’t you seen a father crying on the evening news because he’d been unable to get through the flames to rescue his little boy?
- What if a robber broke down the door, and that robber had a gun?
- What if there were a flood, or a tornado, or an earthquake, bigger and stronger than any grown-up could possibly be?
At those memories, we bet you stop smiling. That’s a terrifying moment – the one in which you discover that your parents aren’t gods.
Now you’re the parent of course, wondering what to say to your fearful child when he realizes that you’re not godlike. You are confident in your ability to comfort your child when he is younger and afraid of the products of his own imagination, but you are unsure of what to say when he asks about something he’s seen on television or heard about from his friends – something all too real. Is it true? he might ask. Did that really happen?
You don’t want to lie. But listen to the question. What is he really asking? Probably what he wants to know is, “Could that happen to me and to my family?” And what he needs to hear from you isn’t that bad things don’t happen, but reassurances that you are not helpless; that you know what to do.
Yes, houses catch on fire, but you have a smoke detector, you know how to call the fire department, and you know how to get everyone out of the house.
Yes, there are tornados, but you know the part of the house where the beams are strong and the family can go until the storm blows over.
You know how to keep him safe. Those things are not for him, but for you to worry about.
Your attitude and tone of confidence will be as reassuring as the words you use. By the same token, if every time there’s a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder you visibly cower and rush to switch on the weather channel, it will be noticed. Try to take control of your own fears even in a potential crisis and certainly in an actual one. Your reaction is vital to your children’s sense of security, so for their sake, continue if at all possible to exude confidence and constancy. Collapse later, in private.
And then there’s the Big Question that they are going to ask sooner or later: are YOU going to die?
A Victorian parent might have answered, yes, I am going to die and you are going to die; everyone is going to die, so you’d better be very, very good every day because you never know if it’s going to be your last; you could very well die in your sleep tonight.
Those Victorian parents must not have realized what the children were really asking, which was, surely, “Are you going to die when I am still little and so desperately in need of you?” Knowing that, your answer would be more like, “I’m not going to die for a very long time, and I’ll be here to take care of you until you are grown up and have children of your own.”
Pardon us for a diverting story about one of the Grandmothers’ adorable grandchildren. One very precocious just-barely-3- year-old girl asked her grandma when she was going to die. Grandma took the girl on her knee and gave her several paragraphs about the seasons of life, and how she planned to be around until the child had children of her own – until her mommy was a grandmother, in fact, and that all this was very beautiful and not at all sad. The little girl listened quietly, and then asked, “When you die, can I have your shoes?”
So we are advised to listen carefully to our children’s questions, and also to what they say when they don’t know what questions to ask, or if they don’t seem to feel reassured by our reassurances.
Ask, “Why do you think it could happen?” or “You look worried; I’m wondering what worries you.” Try to find out what he or she has observed or been told – and certainly don’t dismiss those fears, not even the monster-under-the-bed ones.
Do both: take his worries seriously but also offer reassurances that you know how to keep him safe.