The other night, my five-year-old daughter was clingier than usual. As we snuggled at bedtime, she asked in a heartbreakingly sad voice, “What would happen to me if you and Daddy died? Who would Take care of me?”
Gulp. My eyes widened, and my heart raced.
My initial reaction was to reassure her. “That would never happen sweetheart!” I said in a comforting tone. “Don’t worry, Daddy and I will always be here for you.” But in spite of my best efforts to put her at ease, her fear persisted, and she choked up with tears in her eyes.
I tend to have an anxious mind myself and I HATE when people tell me not to worry. It is a wasted wish. It’s too late! I always want to shout, the worry is already there, the seed has been planted!
Being told not to worry feels dismissive to me. It infuriates me and makes me feel like I’m not being taken seriously. Since when does someone else have the authority to tell me what is worth worrying about and what isn’t? It also makes me feel helpless, as I realize the other person doesn’t know how to help me.
At that very moment, I recognized that I was doing the same thing to my child. With that in mind, I chose a different tactic with my daughter. I just sat there and held her.
I wrapped her up in my arms and said, “I know how hard it can be to have scary thoughts like that, and I’m here for you whenever you want to share them with me.”
And we just lay there together in silence until she fell asleep. I have no idea if that worked, but the tears stopped, and she was able to relax enough to go to bed.
In reflecting on this interaction, I have realized that it’s better for me as a parent to acknowledge my child’s worries, give them a name, and hold space for her while she sorts through it. Despite my best intentions, telling her not to worry just sends the message that I don’t understand or don’t know how to help.
I want her to learn it’s completely normal to have scary or overwhelming thoughts, and there are ways to cope with them. Sometimes we just have to sit together until the thoughts pass. Other times, we can try to challenge the thoughts, or distract ourselves, or find ways to think about it differently. I also want to help her talk through it, let her ask difficult questions and try to answer them honestly and age-appropriately.
I want her to feel comfortable sharing her worries with me. Even if I can’t or won’t solve them for her, I will be there by her side while she copes with them.