January 12, 2010

Monsters: Part 2

The doctor from the office across the hall from me burst into my office. “Do you have a minute?” he asked when he saw me walking between exam rooms. He’s a very nice, very smart physician who treats adults. When he’s in the office, he wears a long, starched white exam coat.

“I have a very distraught woman in my office. She hasn’t slept in 3 days.” I felt bad for the woman, but the expression on my face must have conveyed my curiosity about how, exactly, he thought I might help. “She’s in the office right now waiting for me.” I suspect I must have looked increasingly unhelpful with this new urgency. “Can you tell me, really quickly, how you get rid of witches?”

One evening in the early 1980's, I was having dinner in New York's Theater District at a lovely restaurant named Barbetta.  Margaret Hamilton, pictured above (not, however, as she appeared that evening in the restaurant), came in with a couple of companions and was seated at the next table.  I wanted to tell her how great I thought she was, but it felt awkward to interrupt her dinner, and I didn't.  It didn't seem like anybody else in the restaurant noticed her.  It isn't well known that she started her working life as a kindergarten teacher, and was known to be particularly good with children.  She once was a guest on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and explained that she wasn't really a witch.  She just played one as an actress. If children were frightened by this character, would her appeal help?

He explained that the woman’s 5-year-old daughter had been unable to sleep for 2 or 3 nights since a play date with a friend. When I asked, he didn’t have a lot of the important details. He didn’t know if they had watched a video intended for an older sibling, or seen a TV show, or just been told a scary story by somebody. My approach, as usual, is from an empathic direction, in which the child guides the response.
In this blog, I don’t usually discuss religion. I think parenting is about universal truths about children and childhood that transcend most cultural and religious variations. Think about religion, in your personal experience. Has anyone ever tried to convert you? Have you ever tried to point out the rational inconsistencies in your own or somebody else’s religion? Generally, this is an unproductive tactic. When someone sees the Virgin Mary in a reflection from the glass of an office building, often a flock of believers come to the miraculous spot. Yet plenty of others either can’t pick out the particular shape or just don’t think it’s a supernatural event. Whatever your religious beliefs, I can suggest certain things that you either believe or you don’t. For these matters of faith, it’s hard to imagine even the most cogent and scientifically-supported argument will dissuade you from your belief. I could be writing, for example, about UFOs. Some people believe that the US government has aliens (unclear if they might be considered legal or illegal aliens) in top-secret storage hidden in Area 51. This is the reason, I suspect, that new religions have such a hard time catching on. You have to convince people that their cherished belief system is wrong, and then convince them that yours is right. How well do you think it would work if you said something along the lines of Your religion is ridiculous. There’s no such thing as a god like the one you believe in? It doesn’t work with adults. Being dismissive of someone’s beliefs is not an effective way to get them to give up those beliefs. We all know this, and it’s why the socially adept among us try not to get into discussions about religious belief at friendly dinner parties.

If this approach wouldn’t work with you, why would you think it would work with a child?

In Monsters: Part 1, I described a child who believed that monsters lived in toilets, and were a serious threat to her safety. Her fear, however bizarre and irrational it appeared to be, was having a material impact on her quality of life. Modern life just doesn’t go as smoothly when you're afraid to use a toilet. Though this was genuinely frightening to her, she started to cry after her mother told her that her monsters did not exist and that she was immature for thinking so. She was hurt that her mother didn’t believe her. She felt bad that her mother didn’t think of her as a big girl. And she felt isolated and abandoned and especially scared now that her mom, basically, told her that as far as the monster threat went, she was on her own. Can you imagine abandoning a preschooler?  Imagine how it feels to her.  That’s why my solution wasn’t attempting to dismiss the potency of her fear. The solution did not require her to give up her belief. Instead, it empowers her to overcome the anxiety-provoking aspects of this fear.

I knew the doctor across the hall didn’t have answers to many of my questions. So I gave him some general guidelines for the distraught mother.

1.  Don’t discount her fear.  This gives her messages you aren’t trying to give.  To her, it appears that either you don’t care about her suffering, or you are unable to help her, or maybe you just aren’t listening.  When you tell your terrified child that there’s no such thing as monsters or witches, you do not silence these demons.  You simply drive them underground*. Often, these children will open up to me about these threats in private, but not in the presence of the unsupportive parent.

2.  Find out concrete things about the problem, and what it is that she is actually afraid of.  This knowledge about the fear is what will give you the tools to help her manage it. Most kids, for example, are not particularly anxious about the existence of ghosts or aliens or monsters of any particular kind.  They accept these as a part of the natural world.

Why is it that kids aren’t afraid of dinosaurs?  When they go to the Natural History museum and see the giant skeletons, it’s clear they understand that these things were really big.  They see the teeth, maybe they ask a guide about it and are told that yes, they could eat a child in one bite.  The gentlest little angels wear pajamas with depictions of Tyrannosaurs in particularly aggressive and threatening poses.  So why no nightmares about this, when they know the script so well?

It’s because dinosaurs aren’t part of their belief system.  Go ahead and ask a 5-year-old.  They won’t tell you about von Baer’s theory about the recapitulation of phylogeny by ontogeny, and they won’t know Lyell from Lamarck, but before they can read they know the word extinct.

* In 1895, H.G. Wells published his story The Time Machine in which creatures called Morlocks lived underground.  There they keep the machinery working that supports the care-free life of the surface-dwellers.  In exchange for providing this labor, the people that live in the sunshine regularly march off to feed themselves to the CHUDS.

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