Facing your child’s irrational fears

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 4-year-old daughter, who sees your zombie phobia and raises you a thieving cartoon ferret.

October is the month with the scary stuff. Graveyard lawn decorations! Guillermo del Toro movies! Candy Corn! If you’ve got a child between 3 and 12, they’re at the age when fear over even the smallest thing can overtake them like zombies shambling towards a farmhouse. So what do you do when your kid won’t let you turn off the light, won’t hug Ronald McDonald or won’t stay overnight in a creepy Victorian mansion with you so you can inherit the fortune of a departed rich uncle you didn’t know you had?

Children’s fears come on suddenly, inconsistently and with no rhyme or reason. My daughter, Viva, loves the scary decoration aisle at Target–she’ll shake hands with a robotic corpse and hit the button 50 times so it will moan and wail and flash its rictus grin. What won’t she do? She won’t sleep in her room unless we take out all the old “Dora the Explorer” board books, because she’s afraid that Swiper, the masked bandit ferret creature that frequently snatches Dora’s stuff, will jump out of the books and … I don’t know … prevent her from reaching her Abuela’s house or something. The TV unpaused itself the other day and Viva accidentally saw a commerical for the terrifying-looking film “Crimson Peak.” The demonic visages and decaying hands hown in the ad didn’t scare her a bit, but she won’t watch “Beauty and the Beast” all the way through because the Beast is “scary.” Telling her it’s a “tale as old as time” doesn’t help a bit. And when all the other kids at an Easter event last Spring cried and refused to hug a low-rent Easter Bunny with exposed flesh wrists, Viva laughed and got her picture taken. But yesterday when I tried to give her a brioche grilled cheese sandwich, she refused.

“Why?” I queried, “You love brioche.”

“The cheese is scary,” she answered. “I’m afraid of the cheese.”

Terror has a name in our house, and it is Trader Joe’s Lacey Swiss and Colby Jack Marbled Slices.

But one cannot live in fear of animated mammals small or large, and one certainly can’t live in fear of brioche grilled cheese. Below are three steps to overcoming the fears that are overtaking your household.

Validate your child’s fear

Any child behavioral expert or comedy blogger with no qualifications to speak of will tell you that the first step to confronting childhood dread is to acknowledge and accept the way they feel. This is absolutely the hardest part for me when it comes to parenting, to being married, or sharing the earth with other humans – validating their feelings. I’m sure you agree with me that feelings are largely a stupid thing which very much get in the way of more useful endeavors, like thinking rationally, performing effective actions and playing PacMan 256 on Amazon Prime from midnight until the sun comes up. If I could have my emotion chip excised and my ears sharpened to a point, I’d probably go full Spock.

I don’t like to validate my daughter’s reluctance to constantly have her photo taken for my blog. I don’t like to validate my wife’s terror over the occasional presence of centipedes in our bathtubs. I don’t “agree to disagree” with people who don’t believe in sensible gun control, or climate change or evolution. And just because Jimmy Fallon hosts “The Tonight Show,” I’ll be damned if I’ll recognize your claim that he is talented. I simply don’t like accepting things I disagree with.

But this is not good when it comes to parenting. Sure, I could scoff at my daughter’s fear of the Beast. “The Beast?” I could witheringly ask, “The buffalo in a tailcoat that dances to Angela Lansbury songs? That’s who you’re scared of? Lemme show you the demon the size of a mountain in Fantasia. That character will put a chip in your teacup.”

That behavior would not help allay my daughter’s fear – it would only result in more tattoos and piercings as soon as she’s old enough and full of enough tequila to go under the needle to show her dad just how much resentment has built up over the years.

You must start by swallowing the bile that bubbles up from knowing you’re the only thoughtful, level-headed adult hanging upside down at the tot lot, and then you must tell your child that fears are natural.

“Swiper can be scary,” I should say. “He steals things. We don’t like our things stolen, that’s why there are ten locks on each of our doors. That and to keep out home invading murderers.”

Then my child will be calm. I could try this:

“The Beast is big, isn’t he? And growl-y. Like Hope Solo without the goalkeeper gloves and rap sheet–and aren’t we all afraid of her? It’s normal to fear the Beast, but he doesn’t mean to be scary, and–spoilers–he turns out to be nice at the end and then turns into a prince. Gaston, on the other hand, tries to stab the Beast to death and then falls off a parapet onto sharp rocks. There’s the guy you should be afraid of.”

Or this:

“Everyone is scared of cheese at one time or another, Sweetie. Sometimes it’s when someone brings you to Olive Garden and orders a Smoked Mozzarella Fonduta and you fear you’ll actually fall into that greasy pit of dairy fat and despair never to return. Sometimes it’s when you hit 40 and run out of enzymes to digest cheese, and it hits you as you stare into the mirror at your ever expanding forehead and graying temples that if you don’t carry Lactaid in your pocket all the time, you’ll never again get to enjoy pairing a compact yet buttery Spanish Manchego with a buxom, grippy Monastrell, at least not without 24 hours of profound intestinal regret. That’s fear, Sweetie. To hell with the cartoon ferret.”

Your child will realize it’s okay to feel afraid, but best to work to overcome the fear.

Be the calm you wish to see in the world

Sometimes your child is afraid because the blades of your parenting helicopter have blown the winds of fear in their face. Do you leap to your feet and vocally tic every time they approach the slide at the park? No wonder they’ve got trepidation about heights. Are you so histrionic in reacting to the things you fear that your children look to have fears of their own just to be more like you? The last time Professor Foster saw a spider in our bedroom she burned down the house and moved us to another county. It’s no wonder Viva doesn’t like ants. The last time I went into our basement, which I’m relatively sure is inhabited both a far-eastern witch demon and a malevolent 19th century little boy, I covered myself in holy water and rosaries and screamed all the way up and down the stairs. That’s probably why Viva won’t go get the holiday decorations with me anymore.

Be a pillar of calm about their fears, and a blanket of warmth, as well. Pick them up, squeeze them, perhaps rock them soothingly, and say to them in a smooth, rich voice, “When we go to get the animatronic skeleton from the crawl space, I promise you a bedraggled, toothless banshee face will not rush out of the dark recesses to chew on our souls. That only happens in movies and occasionally to real people, but mostly people who deserve it or whom we don’t know.”

Take that slope together

If your child fears cheese, holding them by the ankles and dipping them in the fonduta will not solve matters. If you child fears “Beauty and the Beast,” do not dress like a gentlemanly French grizzly bear and sneak into their room to tell them it’s going to be all right. If your child sees dead people, do not lock them in a cupboard with a malevolent wraith. They just get scratched up. Baby steps are the key.

Decide on a plan to address their fears in small manageable ways–one page of a book about Swiper, one YouTube clip of the Beast, one Mozzarella bocconcini.

Help them face that fear holding your hand and breathing slowly. If you’re facing a cartoon, keep a remote in hand. If you’re facing demons, keep a priest nearby. If you’re facing cheese, keep toast points at the ready.

With time, effort and care, most subclinical, irrational childhood fears will subside. As a matter of fact, you might just consider going on a long business trip and coming back once they’ve outgrown the fear, since time and exposure will dull the pointiest fang of anxiety. You spouse might not appreciate that, though.

As I pointed out last week, every generation has its goofy fears. You’re not still afraid of The Banana Splitz or the subway scene in The Wiz, are you?  Okay, don’t answer that. But MOST fears will be gone before you can say “Candyman” into the mirror five times.

Oh, and do NOT say “Candyman” into the mirror five times.

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