The first way his fears manifested were that he believed "Wild Things" were living in the breezeway between our home and the neighboring house. He was hysterical in any room that had a window facing the breezeway- and this included his bedroom. Up until this point he would usually wake up happy and pitter patter to come find us - now he would wake up screaming in fear and not budge from his bed until someone came to calm him down. He wouldn't get close to the windows and wanted to be held on our laps for most of the day. I didn't know how long we could sustain getting through the days like this.
Smoke DetectorsTo round out the situation - a few nights when we were cooking dinner the smoke detectors went off (they are very sensitive - nothing was burning!). It was LOUD. Leo was already feeling delicate and suddenly there was this ear-shattering insistent beeping and flashing lights sprung on him without warning. He'd never heard anything like it before. Obviously, he was hysterical - and now terrified of something else.
Responding With LogicI know kids aren't tiny adults, but I also don't believe in talking down to them. I try to answer questions honestly, with accurate vocabulary, and with more detail than I think he can absorb at this stage. Often he surprises me with how much he understands - like when he explained to my mother that condensation is water from the air.
So I thought I could reason with him about these fears. I told him that Wild Things don't exist - they are imaginary. I explained that smoke detectors are devices that are designed to protect us but can't tell the difference between cooking and fires so they warn us if they smell smoke no matter what. I reassured him they can't hurt us. I explained that the breezeway is empty, took him out there during the day to see that nothing lived there. I told him that the noises he was hearing were our neighbors in their homes.
This was not helpful. In his mind his fears were real and I couldn't rationalize my way out of them.
What WorkedSo after a few days of realizing that he wasn't buying the whole "there's nothing to be afraid of" thing we switched our strategy. Here's what worked:
- We made lavender spray (essential oil and water) and I told him that the wild things think lavender is stinky so if our house smells like lavender they will go somewhere else. We sprayed it all over the house and he asked for confirmation that they thought it was stinky.
- We talked about where the wild things are now. We decided they moved on and are now living in Toledo. As we talked I was able to rescript them a bit as kind but misunderstood - we even talked about sending them a postcard.
- We talked about the difference between being afraid and being startled. We told him that even if something surprises us and our heart is beating fast we can know we are safe - it still might not feel good, but we don't have to be afraid.
- We told him the smoke detectors are our friends. Then we re-explained its function and that it was trying to protect us. I caught him talking to the smoke detectors and talked back as the smoke detector using a friendly voice. He asked lots of questions (including "why do you startle me?") and even started asking the smoke detector if he wanted play.
He's been much better over the last week - although he does have days when he wants to be held a lot still. We all seem to be sorting it out - and hopefully I will be better prepared when we face a similar situation in the future.