“Mama I had a dream about foxes and it was so scary and that’s why I don’t want to go to sleep!”
Kids make up a bunch of excuses for not going to bed. It seems to be one of those classic things that almost all parents have to deal with. Fake thirst or hunger, elaborate tales of real or invented fears, needing to pee or getting another toy, the excuses are sometimes hilarious, sometimes exasperating, sometimes genuinely heart-wrenching when you desperately need some adult-time but those little hearts need you.
I tried the usual responses to the fox nightmare. Things like “it’s ok darling, you’re perfectly safe,” “there are no foxes in New Zealand,” “let’s talk about some happy things before you go to sleep.” Reassurance wasn’t enough.
And then it struck me.
“How big do you think foxes are?” I asked.
“So big!” He said. “Big like the massivest dogs.”
“Yeah, like wolves!”
“Ahh,” I said. “I used to think that too, when I was a kid. I had nightmares about foxes too! But guess what?”
“What?” He’s always interested in similarities between us, and stories of when I was a kid.
“They’re tiny! They’re more like the size of big cats. Foxes are super cute!”
We looked up pictures and videos of foxes, especially playful baby ones. He switched from being terrified of big wolf-like creatures to being smitten. We even bought a cute cartoon fox cushion the next day for him to have on his bed. He never had a fox nightmare again.
This is the strength of parenting with empathy. I could have made him go to bed, ignored his pleas, or just brushed off his fears as silly. But by respecting him, listening, and caring enough to figure it out with him, we exposed the fear to the truth, and an unsympathetic attitude was unnecessary. It took about 15 minutes, and then he went to sleep peacefully. I had a shortcut, remembering the same fear as a child. But a few strategic questions could have easily led to the same result.
Another time he was exhausted and a little under the weather after a long road trip. We were staying with friends he knew well, but he was overtired. At some point in the night I was woken by him sobbing in fear and talking about being on a rollercoaster. I was disoriented and it took me a few moments to realise he was having a night terror. The last one he’d had, a few years earlier, I’d tried to get close to reassure him, and ended up with a split lip when he headbutted me. So I needed a different strategy this time.
I softly spoke to him: “you’re safe, mama’s here, you’re safe, mama’s here” over and over again, stroking his forehead (but keeping mine well away!). He kept talking about being scared and how he couldn’t get off the rollercoaster. So eventually I tried talking back to him, and it was like talking to someone who’d been hypnotised. He was still fast asleep, but he responded to everything I said.
“OK, first of all, you need to press the red button, that will stop the rollercoaster.” And he pressed the palm of my hand. I was stunned!
“The rollercoaster is slowing down, and you’re at the bottom. First of all you need to unclick your seatbelt. Reach down and unclick it.” And he mimed doing so.
“Now you need to lift the bar that’s holding you in. I’ll help you, it’s quite heavy.” And he pushed at nothing.
“There you go, you can step off now, the rollercoaster has stopped!”
He fell out of bed. Luckily I was on a trundler bed next to him, so he didn’t fall far. He fell out of bed, and he woke up, and remembered nothing. He quickly went back to sleep.
That’s quite a different example to the first, but both incidents have stuck with me. The key to both was stepping into his world, acknowledging what he was experiencing, and working through it with him. Sometimes it just doesn’t work to think about things rationally, because children don’t have all the knowledge that we do. Rational doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes you have to shrink dream foxes down from wolves, or pretend to get off a rollercoaster.