We’ve fully entered Childhood Fear territory.
Lately, Ryan’s biggest fear has been shadows. The fears are strongest at night and when he’s in an unfamiliar place, so naturally, the shadow fear first came to the surface during our vacation to Disney World earlier this month.
It’s a common and understandable fear for a kid his age, especially for one with an imagination as vibrant as his. He’s smart enough to know how a shadow is formed. After all, he’s seen the Daniel Tiger episode about shadows, and Daniel Tiger is the one who teaches him about all the important things in life. But he forgets all of Daniel’s lessons when things get dark, the shadows get big and he starts to imagine they’re all going to come to life and come after him.
I try not to minimize his feelings by telling him there’s nothing to be scared of. After all, I’m a grown woman and the teeniest of spiders makes me shriek. Once I gather up every last bit of courage I have to kill Itty Bitty Spider, I still find myself shuddering every few minutes for the next hour, assuming every speck of dirt I see out of the corner of my eye is one of the dead guy’s friends coming to avenge his death.
I logically KNOW those tiny things can’t really hurt me. I’m still scared though, and at 31 years old, I have to assume I always will be.
So I don’t talk Ryan out of being afraid with throwaway lines like “there’s nothing to be scared of” or “dude, they’re just shadows.” He’s afraid and if telling him not to be was all it took to cure it, he wouldn’t be scared in the first place.
I never know if I’m doing this stuff the right way, though. These things always seem to start at the end of a long day, when you’re exhausted yourself and all you want is a glass of wine and the ability to prop your feet up for 10 full minutes. Right at that moment is when the sweet, quiet voice confides a fear and you have to think fast.
You have to be creative, age appropriate and confident in your answer. At 8 p.m. (I don’t know about anyone else, but I peak at noon and go downhill from there.) You do the best you can, knowing you’ll later think of a million ways you could have handled it better. Of course you hope you help them conquer their fear, but you really hope you don’t somehow accidentally make it worse.
On the first night in our hotel room in Florida, the shadow fear came out in full force. After a full day of traveling and walking, I dug deep and pulled out this:
I only let nice shadows in your room. Mommy is the boss, and I do NOT let mean shadows in. Only the nicest shadows, the ones I like best, to keep you company. (As a bonus, it’s another way to drive home the important point that Mommy is The Boss. He could use a few reminders of that here and there.)
Furthermore, I told him it was the shadows’ bedtime, too. We used our stern voices to the remind the shadows that it’s time to go to sleep. We waited for a minute, then listened … and we swore we could hear them start to snore.
Ryan relaxed and fell asleep as I closed the bedroom door behind me.
I wondered whether I had said the right things; I hoped his night wouldn’t be full of fear or, worse, nightmares.
The next morning, Ryan came out of his room, shut the door and walked over to me.
He gave me a big hug and said, “Thank you, Mommy. Thank you for helping me with the shadows when I was going to bed.”
It’s funny how you can feel like you’re struggling, how you can question your methods or wish you’d had more time to think so you could have chosen better words … and then your child tells you himself that you’re doing ok.
Naturally, one home run doesn’t necessarily make the fear go away. We talked about nice shadows and lectured them to go to bed every night for the whole week we were in Florida. But it took less convincing each night before he would calm down; he even seemed to look forward to telling the shadows to go to bed before drifting off himself.
Since we’ve been back home, the shadow fear has eased. We’re still talking about shadows, but he continues to be more easily consoled every day.
I know more fears are right around the corner. Whatever they are, I hope I’ll be able to think fast and handle them with confidence.
As long as it’s not spiders. I’ll let Mike handle that one.
Have you dealt with childhood fears? Share your experiences in the comments below!
I'm Meg. I grew up in Ohio, came of age in Arizona and am now raising a family in Pennsylvania. I'm a freelance writer, an essayist and a stay-at-home mom to a spirited four-year-old boy. We're on a journey to adopt our second child through the foster care system. I'm told I am too organized and too sarcastic for my own good but I don't see how either is possible.
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