When our oldest child was three years old, she began to have severe nightmares. Terrified and shaking, she would always relate the same strange story to us: there was a black shadow beast that was trying to capture and devour her. It had long glassy fangs and was covered with black smoke. She described this fantastic creature in frightening detail, as if she had seen it clearly. She would wake up screaming, calling out, begging to sleep with us.
In the beginning we tried to go through the room with her and demonstrate that there was no cause for her to be afraid. We would turn the lights on and take a look under the bed, behind the door, through the stuffed animals, in the closet.
“See!” we would tell her, “there’s nothing here. Nothing to be afraid of.” But the night terrors grew worse, and while our attempts to relieve her fear granted temporary success, the monster always seemed to return.
One night, around 2 am, she awoke with a scream and ran to us, weeping and holding her temples as if they were going to burst. I felt a sudden confidence that everything we had done to try and help her had merely magnified her fears. I also knew we could not just wait for this phase to end. It was time to take action.
Bring Out the Weapons
When we had lived in Belgium, before our daughter was born, we had gone to a Christmas fair and I had purchased a collection of toy armor and wooden weapons. I had kept them in the closet in case the baby was a boy (we like to be surprised) and had given some of the pieces to my nephew.
That night, I brought what I had out and told our daughter that I had been saving these tools of war for just such a time. I put the armor on her and gave her a wooden sword. I told her the only thing that could be done was to go to battle and slay the monster. Then, screaming a battle cry, we charged into her bedroom. On the floor was a giant, goofy looking stuffed hippo. Hurling ourselves at the poor toy, we slashed, hacked, and battered it. Then we took that evil beast and threw it out the window of our second floor apartment.
She hasn’t had a nightmare since that night.
The Birth of a Warrior
Following the battle, our daughter could not be parted from her sword. We gave it the name Samaria (Hebrew for “Watch Mountain”). She would often dress up like a princess with veils, capes and a long gown. But even in her most feminine attire, Samaria was secured to our daughter’s side by a sash. We decorated the blade together, etching on it (with permanent marker) our family motto: Tutum te Robore Reddam, “I will Protect you through my Strength.” When she slept, Samaria was always under her pillow.
To be continued…
- Fear is barbed. Like an arrow or a fishhook, if you try to remove it by forcefully pulling it out you eventually create more trauma. Aggression and repression allow the fear to fester and to worsen. The most powerful way to face fear is to accept it, and then to manage it according to its own principles, working with its structure. When we denied that our daughter’s fear was legitimate, we were undermining her. When we worked within the world of her fear and faced it, we were able to defeat it.
- Children are not short and stupid adults. If we artificially place a child’s fears within the context of a totalitarian adult world view, then their fears appear ignorant and foolish. This would be to be insensitive to the unique manner in which the world presents itself to children and the potential cultivation that occurs when a child is able to meaningfully engage the world as it is presented to them. Children should be given the love and assistance that is appropriate for their current development.
- Projection is powerful. Rather than giving children a scientific rationale for why they should not be afraid, it is much better to give them a myth that will allow them to face their fears. I work with a mother who has a background as a psychologist. Similar to my experience, this mother has seen great success in helping her son overcome nightmares: every night she gives him a spray bottle that is filled with a magic potion. Whenever a threatening monster begins to make an entrance the boy sprays it with the potion causing the offender to melt.
Three Months Later
About three months after the battle, I began listening to baseball games on the radio each evening as I cooked dinner. Being a poor teacher, the only radio I had was an alarm clock with a radio function. One night, hours after we had all gone to sleep the alarm went off on the radio setting. A loud announcer’s voice echoed through the apartment. My first thought as I lay there suddenly awake was that this would undo all of the progress our daughter had made with her night terrors.
Sure enough, her door crashed open, and I heard the sound of her little feet running across the living room. Our door flew open. I will never forget the sight of her silhouette in the dim light of the doorway. She paused for a moment, Samaria poised and ready in her small hand. Then she bounded forward ferociously and leapt onto our bed. The tip of Samaria quivered an inch away from my left eyeball. “Papa, is that you?” she demanded.
When we spoke with her, she told us she had heard a strange man’s voice in our home, so she had rushed to our bedroom to protect her mother. The strength and courage that flashed in this renewed child was deeply humbling to me. I had never been so proud in my life.