Fear fighting

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One Fear illustration from Book of Fears

One Fear illustration from Book of Fears (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

M is afraid of the cottage.More specifically, he is afraid of sleeping at the cottage because the walls are made of wood and they could catch fire. Never mind, that we’ve never had an issue with random fires in the almost 50 years since the cottage was built, there is a working fire alarm right outside his room and we aren’t using the fireplace (it is hotter than Hades at the moment). I tell him all this, repeatedly. It doesn’t seem to help ease his mind.

M’s fear of sleeping at the cottage is not new. He’s expressed it a number of times this summer, usually as we’re getting ready to go to the cottage.  By the time we get there, he’s generally feeling better and is able to go to sleep in the room with the bunk beds and wooden walls where my brothers and I slept when we were kids.

As an adult, I recognize that M’s fear of sleeping in a wooden bed with wooden walls is not rational. However, I understand that for him, it’s real. As he has pointed out to me on several occasions, he doesn’t sleep particularly well when we are at the cottage – he very often has trouble falling asleep and then he’s up at 6:30 or 7:00 am.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of cause and effect will recognize that this is a spurious relationship at best. M could have trouble sleeping at the cottage because his room is close to the main living area and the walls are thin. Plus, he tends to wake up early on weekends and that’s when we are usually at the cottage. It could also be due in part, to the fact that it’s an unfamiliar bed. I often wake up early too.

These are all good arguments. But none of them matter to M. He’s still afraid of sleeping in his bed at night.

That’s the tricky thing about fear. No matter how much our rational minds – or our mothers – tell us it isn’t real, it sure feels that way. Especially when you’re a child with an active imagination, lying awake in the middle of the night in a quiet cottage in a strange room and an unfamiliar bed.

We all have fears. Some of them are healthy – despite the fact that he can swim, I’m afraid of M swimming alone, without adult supervision. I’m also apprehensive about him getting hit by a car when he dashes across the street without looking.

These fears are manageable. I can remind M to look both ways before he crosses the street and trust, that at 11 years of age, he’s going to do it. I can stress the importance of not going in the water alone. Since my cousin’s have the same rule for their kids, there’s not much risk of an unsupervised swim. At least not this year.

But it’s those little niggling fears that most of us (i.e., adults) keep stuffed inside ourselves, that are the hardest to deal with. Children are generally more honest about what haunts them in the middle of the night. At the very least, they are less afraid to name it. I rarely talk about the fact that I am terrified of losing my mother. She’s not ill. But she is 81. While the women in my family are hardy – my grandmother and her sister were both into their 90s before they died – I know my mother won’t live forever. But this fear lives with me and when my brother’s girlfriend made a casual comment last night over supper about the possibility of my mother’s passing away sometime in the future, I practically bit her head off and served it on the BBQ. Clearly, I have some work to do on this issue.

Naming our fears is hard. Especially since they have a nasty habit of jumping on our chests in the middle of the night and demanding attention. As parents and adults, we have a tendency to dismiss our children’s fears. Especially, since children don’t always have the best timing. What do you mean, you’re afraid of water slides after we paid $100 to come here? While M is not a particularly fearful child, he does feel things strongly. Just telling him not to be afraid of sleeping at the cottage isn’t going to resolve the issue. And it isn’t very respectful. it may not be my fear, but it’s his and it’s real.

Pointing out the fact that the cottage has fire alarms and the electrical wiring is in good shape, didn’t seem to allay his fears. So I started asking M how I could help make him feel better in his room. Putting up a fire alarm? Bringing his white noise machine from home? Sleeping in another room?

M rejected most of my suggestions out of hand. he probably would have been happy to sleep in another room, but all the other beds are full. His grandmother would be quite happy to have him sleep with her, but he prefers to sleep by himself.

So far M’s been sleeping quite well in his room he sleeps. Talking about what he was afraid of seemed to have helped. It’s 8am and he’s still asleep.

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