Conversations with my Seven Year Old: In the Fear Forest

One of the blessings of having a second child is that we, as parents, gain some skills by walking with the first one through predictable stages of growth, maturity, illness, and emotional challenges. When our firstborn had a high fever, we panicked. When the younger one has a fever, it’s old hat. When our firstborn struggled with separation anxiety we thought he would never leave our side. With our second born, we trust that he will find his way with time (and some help, if he needs it).

These milestones of childhood often manifest as confrontations with fear. In the early days of this blog I often wrote about my older son’s fear of the dark and his intense fear of change and death. Like many highly sensitive-creative-prone-to-anxiety children, the fear of change and death tends to arise early and can easily preoccupy their minds for hours on end. Left on their own, the fear magnifies and often morphs into their first intrusive thoughts: What if my parents die? What if I get lost and can’t find my way home? What if I’m gay? It’s essential, therefore, that the fear is addressed at the root, which means beginning to teach kids some kind of contemplative/spiritual practice like meditation, creative visualization, breathing tools, or dreamwork as soon as this fear first appears.

So when the fear of sleep showed up for our seven year old, we understood that he was walking through a portal, an initiation into a deeper stage of maturity, one that includes the inescapable fact of death. And because we had already gone through this with our older son, we understood that this initiation is an essential phase of his growing up process, one that needs to be attended to as quickly and skillfully as possible. Fear, as always, is the teacher, inviting us to the next stage of growth.

“I’m scared to go to sleep,” our son would say when the fear first took hold a few months ago.

“I understand. Tell me what you’re afraid of.”

The fear would jump stories, as fear does. First it was, “I’m scared I’m going to get stuck in a dream and I won’t be able to get out.” Then it changed into, “I’m scared I’m going to be up all night long and not be able to fall back asleep.” Then it story-hopped to, “I’m scared I’m going to feel lonely.”

These were not mild fears. One night he got into bed and experienced his first panic attack, shaking and sweating and feeling like he was going to pass out. As both my husband and I are very familiar with anxiety and panic and we know it’s inherited, we were not at all surprised by his first encounter with this powerful manifestation of fear. We held him and reassured him and talked him through it. We gave him extra nighttime parenting, including telling him he could climb into bed with us whenever he needed to.

These reassurances couldn’t last forever, though. Not only do my husband and I need our sleep, but it wouldn’t serve our son to make us his primary source of reassurance. I knew he needed to find his own strength, and having walked through this with my older son, I had a few tricks up my sleeve. When the bedtime panic took hold the next night, I told him that we were going to read a special book and isten to a visualization to help change his fear tracks. He resisted because he has a very strong-willed personality type, but I insisted.

“We all need ways to handle fear, sweetheart. Fear is part of life, and most people don’t know what to do when it shows up. Fear is here and it’s making you scared to go to sleep. And when you wake up in the middle of the night, you need to train your brain to go somewhere else, otherwise it will automatically go to the fear place.”

“Why does my brain want me to be afraid?” he asked.

“Fear is part of being human,” I responded. “Every single person on this planet has to confront fear, and if we don’t address it directly, it comes out in other ways. Your psyche is telling you that you’re ready to handle this fear otherwise it wouldn’t give it to you.”

“But I don’t like it. I want it to go away,” he said.

“Yes, of course you want it to go away. But we can’t really make fear go away, and the more we try, the stronger it gets. The more we try to figure out the fear directly, the more we fuel its fire. We need to say hi to fear but then learn ways to move through it without getting caught in it. This will make more sense as you practice different tools. And this tool I’m going to teach you tonight will help you not get stuck in the fear forest. Jeremy Taylor says that our unconscious doesn’t bring us any dreams that we can’t handle. And there’s a popular phrase that says something similar: God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. It might feel like this is bigger than you are, but you can absolutely handle this.”

First I pulled out my copy of What to Do When You Dread Your Bed and started to teach him basic cognitive-behavioral tools for working effectively with fear (this book is part of an excellent series for kids). Next I sifted through my iTunes library and found the three visualization CDs that I had downloaded for my older son many years ago, then added them to my phone (technology is so convenient sometimes). These are visualizations designed to teach children how to use their breath to calm their nervous system and their imagination to change the tracks in their mind. Through practicing these mindfulness techniques, kids learn that they can work with their minds and, thus, find their own power.

We practiced the tools and listened to the stories every night. Within a few nights, he was falling back asleep in the middle of the night by “going to his magic garden and healing pool.” He had his first experience of working effectively with his fear. He was still scared to go to bed, but I would remind him that, even though he was still scared, he had worked through a layer of the fear. He would acknowledge this as well and say, “Yes, just a few nights ago I was shaking at night. At least I’m not shaking anymore.” Every time we can consciously acknowledge our progress we reduce fear’s power.

My husband also spoke with him in depth about lucid dreaming: becoming aware while we’re dreaming that we’re dreaming and using that awareness to control the dream’s unfolding. I’ve been aware of lucid dreaming since I was a teenager but I’ve only been able to access this high-level dream skill on very rare occasions. My husband, on the other hand, has frequently lucid-dreamed, and it seems that our son has inherited this gift. For just as anxiety is often inherited, so is creativity and spirituality. Our work with our sons is to help them channel their high sensitivity into creativity and spirituality instead of anxiety.

We also had conversations about love and fear, similar to those that I had with my older son years ago (and of course similar to those that I have with my clients every single day ;)). We talked about the fact that love is stronger than fear, and that love, like fear, shows up in many forms: his love for our cat, his love for us, his imagination, his dreamlife – these are all forms of love. Whatever we water will grow, and when we water the love-tracks, the love-flowers bloom big and large and shade out the fear. For just like plants need light in order to grow, fear needs the same. Without the light of our attention, it withers and eventually fades away.

One morning, after many months of struggling through his initiation into the forest of fear, after working with cogntivie-behavioral techniques, visualizations, meditations, breathing practices, and honing his lucid dreaming skills, he said, “Mommy! I did it! I had a lucid dream and it was so fun. I did what Daddy said to do and I made floating pizza appear and then I blasted off in a rocket! How many hours until bedtime so I can try that again?” It was an extraordinary moment, and his sense of self-control and strength were palpable.

A few days later, as we were driving into town, he piped up from the backseat:

“Hey, Mommy. I’m not tired anymore now that I’m not waking up all night long!”

“That’s great, bunny. I think you’ve really walked through a fear forest.”

“What do you mean?”

“We all walk through fear forests at different times in our lives,” I explained to him. “And every time we do, hopefully we learn new skills and acquire new amulets for wrestling with fear. You just walked through one, and you learned a lot and grew stronger because of it.”

Then I flashed on the scene in the Princess Bride where Wesley and Buttercup have to cross through the Fire Swamp. Pay particular attention from 1:14-1:50, starting when Buttercup says, “We’ll never succeed.” Sound familiar? ;). 

Fear is the Fire Swamp. Relationship anxiety is the Flame Spurt. The stories attached to intrusive thoughts are the   Lightening Sand. The challenges of trying to conceive, carrying a baby to term, and the first year of motherhood are the ROUS’s (Rodents of Unusual Size). Every time we’re brought to our spiritual knees, we’re being initiated into a realm where fear and faith wrestle daily. But when we know the secrets of the Three Terrors of the Fire Swamp, as Wesley does, we can handle the tests, and can possibly even find beauty in the forest. Likewise, when we learn to unmask fear’s bravado and master our tools for working with anxiety, we step one step further into our strength and power. 

By no means is my son done with fear. He may very well have a difficult night tonight or tomorrow or in two weeks. And even when he moves through this particular fear of sleep, he will have to confront fear ten thousand more times in his life in ten thousand different ways, just as we all do. As I wrote about last week, we heal in layers and spirals, and wrestling with fear is at the core of most, if not all, of our challenges. He’s worked through a layer or two, and he’s found the courage to face this one facet of fear head on. He’s learning a new set of tools and discovering an aspect of his own strength that he didn’t know existed  – or perhaps didn’t exist until he entered this part of the fear forest. And this is how fear is, in fact, our friend, designed to invite us to grow, for we wouldn’t discover these new, strong parts of ourselves if we weren’t confronted with fear.

When we face our fear, we find our courage. When we face our fear, we discover our strength. When we face our fear, we walk through a revolving door on the other side of which is, in a word, love. Fear is not something to “get over” or eradicate. Rather, it’s our greatest teacher. My son learned this for the first time, and hopefully he will remember it when fear shows its face as he walks into each new stage of life and enters a new part of the fear forest. We are all, every one of us, learning it as well.

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