Imagine getting a phone call. You answer. A stranger on the other end of the line identifies his or herself as a law enforcement agent.
You feel a little flutter of anxiety.
The law enforcement official names someone you love dearly. Maybe it’s the name of a family member.
“There’s been an accident. I’m so sorry. Would you be willing to come downtown to identify the body?”
Shock. Disbelief. Disoriented.
Maybe the most unspeakably painful feeling that you didn’t know your mind and body could experience without dying.
You hang up the phone.
Maybe everything’s in slow motion. Surreal. Or maybe you rush into action because you’re the kind of person who functions well in emergencies, even when you’re falling apart on the inside.
Minutes go by. Maybe hours.
Maybe you text or call others to share the tragic news.
I can’t believe they’re gone.
You arrive at the morgue. They take you to a back room where you’ll identify the body for the coroner or medical examiner. You’re a mental and emotional wreck.
They pull back the sheet. You stare down at the face and motionless body of someone you can’t imagine living without, your worst fears realized.
And then this person jumps off the table: “SURPRISE! You can’t get rid of me that easily!” and all of the morgue workers and cops laugh and laugh and laugh and point at you while you try to process what just happened.
‘Dad, I’m scared. There’s a monster under my bed.’
It doesn’t matter that someone you loved dearly hadn’t really died, and had pulled the sickest, most-savage prank imaginable. Your brain and body still experienced the situation as if you’d lost someone precious to you.
Your mental and emotional reactions were consistent with the tragedy actually having happened.
Sometimes, little kids believe a monster could be hiding under their beds.
Because we don’t believe it’s possible that a monster could be hiding under the child’s bed, sometimes we flippantly wave off the child’s concerns. Maybe we tell them to not be silly—that their feelings are ridiculous. Maybe we tell them casually that there’s nothing to be afraid of and close their bedroom door because we’re in a hurry to run off and do something else. Maybe they cry and we get even more impatient. “What are you, a baby? Toughen up. There’s nothing to cry about, but if you keep this up, I’ll give you something to cry about.”
And that’s one way to handle it.
I’m not here to judge anyone’s parenting styles, or to act as if I’m some saint who has never failed his son. I’m confident I’ve failed him plenty.
But I think most of us can agree that there is a loving and compassionate way to respond to this child in a way that will help to build an environment of safety and trust in that relationship, and that the examples shared above are not it.
The Monster Under the Bed Theory
And the more I thought about it and talked about it, the more I liked it as a framework for having conversations about how we respond to our romantic partners. I am NOT comparing — not even a little bit—an adult relationship partner to a child who might be exhibiting “irrational fears.”
I am, however, comparing the other partner in the scenario to the Monster Under the Bed parent.
When people tell us about something that is affecting them — something that might be making them sad, or afraid, or angry, or some other bad thing — we have a choice to make about how we respond.
I submit that an effective and healthy way to respond to a child who is afraid — who is experiencing very real, actual fear, independent of how little we understand why, and regardless of how irrational we think it might be — is to sit or kneel down next to them.
“Hey. I am so sorry that you feel afraid right now. You know, I’ve been afraid before too. Many times. It feels really bad to be scared.
“I’m here. I wish I could take your fear away, but I don’t know how. I only know how to promise you that you’re not alone. I love you so much, and no matter what, I never want you to feel alone. When bad things happen to you, they happen to me too. Okay?
“I’m pretty sure there are no monsters hiding under your bed. If it’s okay with you, I’m going to turn on the lights and check for you, and then when you feel ready, we can both look together if you want. Then, if you’re confident that the coast is clear and that we don’t have any monsters sneaking around here, maybe you’ll feel good enough and safe enough to fall asleep.”
You can love your kids and still treat them like their thoughts and feelings are stupid and unimportant. I get it. Everything we understand to be true tells us that there’s no way there’s an actual monster hiding under the bed, and maybe it feels really frustrating that someone you love doesn’t have the same experiences or the same frame of reference which might cause them to behave differently than you would in similar circumstances.
It doesn’t matter that when your seemingly sadistic family member or friend played the morgue prank on you, they weren’t actually dead. You believed that they died, and while you believed it, your entire world was crumbling.
It doesn’t matter how insane it seems to an adult that a child might believe there’s a monster under their bed. That child is still feeling exactly how it would feel if there WAS a scary monster under their bed.
It doesn’t matter how confused you are about why your spouse or romantic partner might feel as they do nor does it matter how irrational you consider their reasons to be. That person you promised to love and cherish is feeling actual pain. Actual sadness. Actual anger. Actual fear.
You don’t HAVE to do the super-thoughtful parent thing and comfort the child who is afraid of the monster under their bed as described above in order to be a person who loves their children.
It’s not a right-or-wrong thing. It’s not a good-or-bad thing.
I would argue simply that one way is an effective strategy for building an environment of safety and trust in a relationship built to be healthy and last a lifetime, and that the less-compassionate, more-dickish “There’s nothing to cry about! Stop being a baby!” version is more likely to produce strained, unhealthy relationships in the future.
We get to choose.
You don’t HAVE to do the super-thoughtful and loving spouse thing when your partner communicates to you a pain or fear they’re experiencing. I don’t think about it as being right or wrong, or good or bad.
I would argue simply that one way is an effective strategy for nurturing a healthy and loving and mutually beneficial relationship built to last a lifetime.
Strained, unhealthy, feel-bad, conflict-heavy relationships that don’t last.
Love is a choice.
We can choose to be the kind of people who close the bedroom doors and tell our kids to shut up and stop being wimpy and afraid.
Or we can be the kind of people who sit down and listen. Who seek to understand. Who choose to care about things sometimes simply because the people we love care about them.
We can’t prevent all injury. We can’t prevent others from feeling sad or afraid.
But we can make sure that when they’re hurt, or sad, or afraid, that they know they’re not alone.