“There’s a tapping at the window daddy!”
The ambience is not what you’d expect for that kind of a sentence from a 3 year old. We’re not alone in a dark room at night. The wind isn’t howling and there is no trace of thunder. In fact the weather is fine and calm, it’s daylight and the sun is pouring in through the back door. It is clear that there’s nothing there, but my son wants to hide. And in order to do hiding right, you have to have something to hide from. Right?
“Ahhhh! It’s a SPOOKY!!!! Quick hide daddy!”.
So we hide under a scrap of cloth that’s about the size of a gym towel. Then my son runs off to grab something more substantial and we hide under a throw. It lasts as long as it takes for him to get bored or forget what we were doing. I have no idea how long that is. Not long enough for it to get too tedious, but not so short that it escaped my notice.
A scream in the night.
Not a call. Not a declamation. Not a summons. Not a whisper. Just a scream. He is screaming. Again.
My eyes snap open, but my awareness lags a few seconds behind. I stir. I rise. I sigh as I swing my legs around and get them to the ground. I walk my way from our room to his to see what, if anything, he needs.
By the time I get there the outburst has stopped. It’s usually one or two cries out for me, and then just a whimpering. I go to him. I sit on his bedside and place a hand on him. His head, his hand or his chest. “It’s alright Lad, daddy’s right here” I say calmly, masking my own concern that this is happening most nights at the moment. I check for the usual issues, water, discomfort or a need to go to the toilet. I get no answer. I sit a while. And return to bed.
Some nights his eyes aren’t even open. Some nights he settles. Some nights it happens again, and he ends up in bed with us, clutching on to me as I clutch him, his head resting on my armpit.
I don’t know why my son is scared sometimes. I don’t think he could tell me if I asked. It could be beyond words, it could be beyond his words and it could be a concept from beyond his vocabulary. Nonetheless, he is scared.
Fear can be fun. I remember my first experience of abseiling, it was exhilarating. Every sense was on a higher exposure; more intense and sharper. The air tasted stronger, my eyes saw brighter colours, I could hear my heart pounding and some how even the rock I pressed my feet against felt more real. It was like the world was in HD, but not just visually – every sense was on some kind of increased resolution.
When I reached the bottom I was shaking, my feet had to re-adjust to the mundane, my senses had to recover from their heightened state and my mind continued to race. I’ve felt that feeling a few times in my life while high up on rocks, when walking out on stage or – some days – even when hitting “publish” on a blog post. I’ve written about my experience with fear before.
But, what about his fear? His brain sparking, growing and changing at a rate that makes the grey matter between my ears look sluggish and obsolete. His imagination that is more visceral, more vivid and more intense than anything I can remember. His fear, which cannot distinguish between the real world and his own world. Which cannot differentiate between the power and paralysis. His fear which, in the dark when he is alone, clutches at him, icy fingers squeezing him tighter and tighter as he realises how small he is.
How do you deal with that? I honestly don’t know what to do.
I know what I don’t want to do.
I don’t want to dismiss it. I don’t want to tell him that he needs to “be brave” or that he’s scared over nothing. I don’t want him to feel bad for feeling fear, and I don’t want him to stifle it in my presence. I don’t want him to feel afraid of being afraid. We all feel fear sometimes.
I don’t want to feed his fear. I don’t want to make it worse or remind him of the things that make him scared. I don’t want to make the monsters bigger and bolder. I don’t want to stop playing monsters with him. I don’t want him to forget those times fear gets the heart pumping and that makes the hairs stand on end. I don’t want the fear to go away. I don’t want it to cripple him. I don’t want to ignore it, think it’s a phase and find out too late that there is an issue – much as I’m sure there isn’t at this stage. I don’t want him to lose that wonderful bubbling cauldron of imagination in his head. Sure he’d be less frightened, but he’d also be less in so many other ways. I don’t want to try to explain everything away.
What I do want to do is be there. Hold him, cuddle him, whisper to him that it’s okay. It’s okay to be scared, it’s okay to need mummy or daddy just because you’re scared. I want him to feel that everything will be alright. I want him to know we are there.
I want to know that’s enough.
But you can’t have everything.