Story-telling helps children work through fear

Two weeks ago, we had an "event" in our home. A bat somehow got into the house and swooped through the living room where my husband and I were playing with our two year old daughter. We probably didn't handle the situation in the calmest manner possible (unless you'd consider screaming like banshees and running from the room with our hands over our heads calm), and this has had a strong effect on our daughter. We startled and frightened her with our reaction, and that night, she had terrible nightmares. The next two nights, she continued to have bad dreams and needed a lot of consoling from us.

Now the dreams have subsided, but she seems fixated on the darn bat! It's the first thing she talks about in the morning ("Daddy got that bat.") and is raised as a concern several times throughout the day. We've reassured her time and again that, yes indeed, Daddy did get that bat, and bats aren't really so scary. Any suggestions on how we might divert her attention from this topic?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Dear Jennifer,

Your two year old is not "fixated", she is working through her "trauma". Her dreams and her story-telling about the event are her means of expressing and regaining a sense of security. Mastery of scary situations occurs through expression, not diversion. Diverting her from the topic may encourage "forgetting" which can result in repression, rather than a successful working- through of the tensions that arose with the incident.

Do not be alarmed by your daughter's expressiveness. You are doing a great job of not only reassuring her, but allowing her the space to learn that frightening things can happen and she can be safe and protected. This is a very powerful learning! Simply respond with the facts as you have done until she is through telling the story.

The fact that her "nightmares" have subsided and been replaced by conscious verbal expression of the incident is also a sign of mastery. She will talk about it as long as she needs to do so. It may be that you will hear further changes that reflect her progress with neutralizing this event. Her emotional expression may become even matter-of-fact or humorous over time. Or she may cease to speak about it, altogether, unless an association prompts her memory banks.

This experience can become a positive memory which allows her a greater sense of safety in the world. For example, if she hears that a child was frightened by a squirrel, or she sees a big barking dog, she may be less frightened and more aware that these animals do not have to pose a threat to her well-being. After all, she has experienced her parents ability to handle the situation successfully, even though it was a "shocking" situation in the beginning. Allowing her to talk as much as she likes about it will likely result in a positive transformation of her fear.

Think back to your childhood. There are likely memories that you will never forget because they were powerful. You may recall them to others or your own children as an adult. Part of life is having experiences and sharing memories. Perhaps your two year old will be telling the famous "bat story" to your grandchildren!

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