In Monsters: Part 2, my medical colleague, a very smart adult physician whose office is across the hall from mine, burst in and asked for a urgent medical consultation, assuming I had expertise beyond his own. He asked me what he can tell his distraught patient to help her get rid of her child's witches.
I didn’t think her child was afraid of the fact that there are witches. She’s not afraid of their power to do things by magic. She’s not afraid of their malicious motives or the scary way they look or dress or of their scary henchpeople or flying monkeys. I thought that gentle questioning of the child, while never doubting her belief in witches, would probably reveal that she’s afraid they will come into her room when she’s asleep, and work their bad intentions there. (I would use this opportunity to point out that it is the child’s concrete thinking that doesn’t usually consider that a witch with magic powers could cast an evil spell from afar, without warning. In Snow White, why couldn't the evil queen just wave a wand over in her palace, and do her mischief from there? Despite her apparent powers, she had to get Snow White to take a physical bite of a tangible apple.) As in Monsters: Part 1, with the child so afraid of a toilet monster, this child was keenly aware of when she was most corporeally vulnerable.
How can we help? If we tell them that their belief system is sheer nonsense, we alienate them and make them feel worse. If we sympathize with them and agree that witches are a constant threat, they might continue to trust us, yet their fear is reinforced and we have confirmed that there is a dangerous broomstick-riding predator somewhere above us just waiting for the right opportunity to strike. Keep watching the skies!
Our problem is that the child's fear is magical, but we are limited by our physical reality. Or are we?
- If her specific fear is of a witch entering her room, she might benefit from a meticulous bedtime ritual of closing and locking her windows at bedtime. If it’s hot and her window must stay open, how about getting a special witch screen that fits the opening? The openings in a window screen are very small and no witch could fit through. Or maybe witches can’t fit through those window safety bars that you are going to install to protect your child. (Maybe you should be doing that anyway.)
- Consider a special witch treatment or repellent that is not toxic once dry but is especially specific and new to the child. My favorite for witches and related hazards is witch hazel, a pre-19th-century remedy for many things with a distinctive smell. Because it is not in widespread use these days, it might not be easy to find. But it sounds like a logical product. So an exhaustive hunt for it with the child in tow will have that much more of a chance of effective pest extermination. As you go from pharmacy to pharmacy, don’t look on the shelf! Since the child can’t read, it is not helpful when you tell her that you looked and there’s no witch hazel there. How can the child be confident of that? Make a point of asking a manager—always with the child right there—if they carry witch hazel and if not, where you might be able to get it. Maybe it can be used to seal the joints around the windows and doors.
These aren’t tricks. I will repeat that lying to your child is never, ever a good idea. Are these lies? Is my approach dishonest? Yes, in spirit it is dishonest, because you don’t, in fact, believe in witches or in the monster du jour. But these anxieties and beliefs are a normal developmental phase. I often discuss concrete thinking and the ways a parent has to anticipate and deal with a concrete thinker. I have also discussed in previous posts the gradual development of abstract thinking as a mark of adulthood. The kind of thinking that gives rise to this kind of childhood anxiety is called magical thinking.
With magical thinking, there does need to be some sort of a link between observations or events, but it doesn’t have to be rational from the point of view of an adult. Let’s say your child takes a bath every day just about the time that daddy gets home from work. One night, dad has to work late. At bedtime, your child snuggles with you and asks to take a bath. This seems odd to you, but slow iterative questions determine that he believes that if he takes a bath, daddy will come home.
So my empathic approach, as always, directs our technique to take its cue from the child. This brings up...
5. Dr. Wolffe’s Thinking Rule:
Concrete thinkers need concrete actions. Magical thinkers need magical actions.
There is no intervention for supernatural issues except for supernatural interventions. If you wanted to help someone suffering from demonic possession, would you call a surgeon? Of course not. You’d look for an exorcist. How do we accomplish this for the supernatural conflicts experienced by young children, when we might not be experts in the field—and probably can’t easily find an expert. Think about it...who is an expert on toilet monsters or witches? Maybe we all have enough knowledge for the job we need to do.
All of us, by the way, are a soup of all kinds of thinking. My bank just changed the way ATM deposits are done. I asked a bank officer about this, and she helpfully showed me how to drop the deposit into the night deposit slot. I told her I’d rather change banks—it was intolerable for me to drop an envelope of checks or cash into a blind slot without any sort of record or receipt. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them, it was just my need for concrete security. (Ronald Reagan said, "Trust but verify.") Now that the holidays are over, do you feel comfortable telling your kid all you really know about Santa Claus? And what do you do when you are cornered by somebody at a social gathering who insists on convincing you that every English word of the Bible is the literal word of God, despite your knowledge of it being compiled by a committee in London at the turn of the 17th century? I have met plenty of scientists who follow a religion. Does understanding the universe convince us that there is no God or that there must be a God? Whichever we believe, no amount of moot-court argument will change a person’s faith in their belief system.