My youngest has been struggling to sleep in her own bed the last couple weeks due to fear. We can't pinpoint where the fear came from and why it started when it did, but when it comes, it envelopes her and she will lie awake in bed all night long.
At first, Heidi and I just encourage her to relax and go back to bed. When she works her way downstairs complaining of an upset stomach, we tell her to get a drink and go back to bed. After coming downstairs again, she asks to take a Melatonin (sleep aid) and we quickly agree. Back to bed. Ten minutes later we hear her whimpering at the top of the stairs and yell up for her to come down to talk.
"What's going on, Tay?"
Through the tears she's trying to hold back she says, "I don't know, I just can't sleep."
"Did something happen?'
"No. Not that I know of." She replies with alligator tears streaming down her cheeks.
"You have nothing to be afraid of. Your sisters are sleeping in your room with you, we're awake and the doors are locked. You are very safe and you have nothing to fear. Ok?"
She shakes her head, but you can tell that something just isn't registering, like something else inside her head is screaming at her or whispering to her, either way, the thoughts begin to snowball and as irrational as they are, to her they are believable...especially at night. We hug her and tell her to go upstairs and give it another try since it's getting really late and we can tell she's really tired. Yet inside, we can tell...she's gonna be sleeping on our floor...it's only a matter of time.
One night turns into two and two turns into 4 and so on. Every night we have her start in her bed, but we begin to notice that even hours before bedtime she's beginning to shutdown at the thought of dread that comes over her that "she probably won't be able to get to sleep". I think, based on my experience with sleeplessness, that the thing that's consuming her is how slowly time passes and how quickly thoughts bombard you as you "try" to fall asleep. The fear compounds and the whole ordeal begins to snowball into an avalanche of anxiety. We can see it written all over her face.
Around the 4th day, we had her try to sleep in her own bed and she just couldn't. She kept coming downstairs crying. Eventually I said, "Come on, let's go get your blanket and pillow...you're sleeping on our floor." As she trailed behind me climbing the stairs to her room I heard her say faintly,
"Dad, are you mad at me?"
I turned around and said, "Oh no, Tay. It's not your fault, I'm just frustrated that something has gotten to you and attacked your mind. I wish I could grab it, choke it, and kill it so you could be free to sleep. But until then, you can sleep on our floor."
There was an instantaneous peace that came over her. As Heidi made a bed on our floor for her, I looked over at Tay and it's like her face was filling with color again like she was being resuscitated. My heart went out to her.
She's been on floor for several nights and we haven't even tried to start her in her own room. It feels like we have to break a cycle of thought that she's trapped in first. Every night we'll just guide her to our room and we sit with her talking about her day, playfully interacting with her, and praying with her for peace and joy to once again fill her frame. I can't say for sure, but I think we're making headway.
I guess the thought that struck me in this whole ordeal is the addition weight she was carrying in her question: "Dad, are you mad at me?" She's already racked with torturous thoughts, and on top of all that, her little heart is trying to carry my emotional fragility as well. She's trying to make sure I'm ok. She's trying not to bother me. I heard her say it in different ways that night: "Are you frustrated?" "I'm sorry, I'm really trying." "I feel bad that I can't get to sleep." These little expressions just tore me up. They indicated something that I fear so many children feel in homes across our land. It is something that I think eats a kid up.
I think we live in a society where parents are so volatile that the children carry concern for their parents emotional health. They can see we are angry, distant, depressed, touchy, easily offended, petty, sad, bored, rushed, and disappointed with life in general. They pick up on our conversations with our spouses. They see our flaccid faces and our hollow eyes. They notice when we don't laugh at their antics anymore. They watch us watch television. They witness the shutdown and they start to feel either like it's their fault or that they are supposed to make it better. Both conclusions are soul-killing for a child. It's pressure they aren't meant to bear up under.
We can easily use this as parents to our advantage. It is the cheapest way to get superficial behavioral modification. We take out the crowbar of guilt and leverage it for all it's worth to get them to "grow up" or "obey" or "do what we say".
"I've had a long day already, don't even get me started."
"You don't appreciate what I do for you."
"If you only knew how much pressure I was under, maybe you'd change your attitude."
"I don't know if I can handle one more thing today."
"After all that I do for you and that's the way you talk to me?"
"I've been working hard all day, I don't have time for your attitude."
"Just let daddy relax, he's had a rough week. Don't bother him right now."
"I don't think I can take one more thing today, so don't press your luck."
"Life is already hard enough, and you're making it harder."
"Your mom is a mess and you're the one killing her."
"Please don't add any more pressure, I'm not in the mood."
"Life is already hard enough, and you're gonna push me over the edge."
Initially these statements will get you immediate parenting results. Translated: It makes our lives easier. The child will feel the effect of their added strain and will back away. You will plant fear, shame, and guilt in their soul that modifies their behavior. They will begin to realize that you are very fragile and they must be "careful" not to offend you, bother you, or push you past the brink. You are, after all, very busy and stressed with so many extremely important and heavy things, and they need to let you have your space and help alleviate pressure if at all possible.
Some children will act out to try to get your attention. They can tell you're distant and distracted and depressed, and they will even misbehave to have a conversation with you, albeit heated. They crave your attention so badly, that they will take even negative attention just to feel noticed. It's not healthy, but it's something. And as they say, "Something is better than nothing."
But many more children take on the role of a care-taker. They carry their parents burdens and try to do something to make things better. When they are struggling at school, or with relationships, or with their own pain or pressure, they will dismiss it or hide it in an effort to not contribute to household heaviness. They even tell themselves, "It's not a big deal, not compared to what mom and dad are going through." Of course, they don't know how to use words like this to express themselves, but this is the feeling that fills their minds in the quite hours.
"Dad, are you mad at me?"
For what? Having fear as a 10 yr. old? Not understanding the emotions that are bringing on those tears? Carrying anxiety over things that you can't yet put into words? Battling thoughts in the darkness that harass your helpless heart? Coming downstairs and asking mommy and daddy for help...infringing on "our" time? If I'm made about that, it's my issue.
Her questions caused pause in my heart. It revealed to me that often in the chaotic craziness of my life, I forget that my kids don't exist to help, support and care for me...it's the other way around. They aren't a nuisance unless I think they exist to orbit my all-important life. I'm supposed to be there for them, taking hits for them, buffering them from the harsh realities of life, creating a safe space for their young hearts to grow, listening to them talk about their problems, whispering salve into their wounded places, caring for and carrying their sorrows or struggles, giving them a free place to play. I'm there to make sure they're ok, they are not to be assuming that place in some sick role-reversal, making sure I'm balanced and regulated and tended to and cared for and thought about and made to feel valuable and loved and safe. How have we come to think this way about our households?
I'm very aware that we all need grace. Parents and Children. I don't write this to rip myself to shreds, nor to tear anyone else to pieces. I write only to expose what I feel is a lie that is killing our kids and causing premature maturity that forces them to grow up at an unnatural speed. They already are over-exposed to things that their young hearts aren't created to carry way before their time. It is my heart's desire to make our home a place of peace, not another pressure cooker of unjust expectations. They are the kids, we are the adults. We are there for them, they are not there for us.
"No, baby, I'm not mad at you. You're just fine. Daddy and mommy are here for you and we'll get through this together. You don't need to be afraid anymore."