When my daughter, Amy, was a pre-teen, she became anxious about going to sleep because of fears of dying in the middle of the night. When I tucked her in, she would tell me, usually tearfully, that she didn’t want to go to sleep for fear of never waking up.
As a good daddy is supposed to do, I would remain in her bedroom, explaining and reassuring, upwards of 30 minutes until she gave the “all clear.” Sometimes, however, my sleep therapy wouldn’t stick, in which case she’d wake me up in the wee hours of the morning to tell me that her anxiety disorder with obsessive-compulsive and phobic features (ADOCPF) was preventing her from sleeping. I eventually figured out that I was spending four to six hours a week trying to talk her out of being sleep-phobic and belatedly realized that my well-chosen words weren’t working. In fact, her fears seemed to be worsening, which strongly implied — horror of horrors — that I wasn’t a parenting expert after all.
Shortly thereafter, I figured out that her condition was worsening not because I had yet to figure out the magic words that would restore her mental health, but because I was talking at all. My talk-talk-talking effectively validated her fears. Why, pray tell, would I be talking at all if her fears didn’t deserve a lot of serious attention?
So, I stopped talking. The next time Amy told me, tearfully, that she was afraid of going to sleep, I said, “Yeah, I know. That sort of fear is not unusual at your age. I’ve said all I have to say, Amos. I don’t have anything to add. You’re going to have to either learn to live with it or put an end to it. I’m not helping, obviously. So, my princess, I love you (kiss, kiss). See you in the morning!” Exit Daddy, stage left.
Amy was none too happy with that turn of events. She continued trying to engage me in her fears for a week or so. She would begin bawling as I left her room, for example. Children are, after all, soap opera factories. I, however, stayed the course. It was not an easy thing to do. Had I abandoned my child? Was I a covert sadist, a sociopath even? Parental self-doubt is a deceptive thing.
Several weeks passed before I noticed that Amy’s demons seemed to have released their grip on her. When I tucked her in, she made no attempt to get me to hang around, talking in vain. It occurred to me that the very thing no psychologist-in-good-standing would recommend had been key to Amy’s recovery.
Every time I’ve recommended my new, amazing, ironic and most peculiar cure for ADOCPF — obsessive fears of all sorts, mind you — it worked. And it continues to work to this day, which is one reason of many why I do not believe — with rare exception — that young children should be allowed to engage in one-on-one (as in, private) conversations with therapists. Having been trained to talk to children, I don’t. In the case of irrational anxieties/fears, said conversations are likely to lend significance to something that is nothing more than a product of a child’s overactive and random imagination. Contrary to the standard psychological narrative, the fears in question do not represent “issues” in a child’s life that said child cannot safely express or lacks the words with which to express. They are literally meaningless. Therefore, the less attention they are given, the better.