So, what happened? Well, Elizabeth came out as I was popping some popcorn and said she was afraid and couldn't go to sleep. She'd been in bed all of maybe ten minutes so I was prepared to just brush it off as the usual "I'm afraid of the dark" kind of stuff she and her brother have done in the past. Even I remember doing it as a kid. Anything to get a few extra minutes of awake time. Anything to push back that bed time.
So as she was saying she was afraid, I was gearing myself up for a brush-off answer to get her back to bed. Then I saw the look on her face and she continued with her story saying she was afraid of "bad guys." I could tell by the look in her eyes that this wasn't just a fib to stay awake. This was some serious stuff weighing on her. So I had her explain. She said something along the lines of being afraid of bad guys because she accidentally saw a scary show during vacation. She's been afraid of bad guys since then and apparently it just became too much for her and she needed help dealing with it. I'll get into that in a minute.
So I left the now popped pocorn in the microwave, left the now open beer on the counter, and started her on a short, but hopefully helpful, journey to not being so afraid. I took her by the hand and walked her to the back door to show her it was locked. Then I did the same thing with the front door. Then the same thing with the window in her room. And showed her there was no bad guy under her bed or in her closet. It felt a little silly in the moment and by the end I think she kind of picked up on that. She had a bit of a smirk when she looked at me like "geeze dad, you're such a goober" kind of smirk. But that's fine. It wasn't my goal but I went with it. I wanted to physically show her the house was secure and I lightened the mood while I was at it, great.
We then sat down for a bit of a talk. While my popcorn was getting cold and my beer was getting warm, I did my best to give her some coping mechanisms, some sort of tool, to help her deal with the anxiety of being afraid. I gave her the usual diatribe on "I'm your dad and it's my job to keep you safe." but I also tried to keep things real. It was a fine line between scaring her with too much information and leaving her ignorant of how the world works. So I walked that fine line as best as I could. I said there were bad people out there that did bad things. I told her I had seen bad things happen, both real and make believe, and when I thought about them too much I had nightmares. I tried to make her feel okay with being afraid of something and tried to make it not really a big deal. Again, a fine line between "everybody feels this way" and "you don't need to feel this way."
I also tried to explain that the show she accidentally saw was probably make-believe or fiction but that some shows were real. We talked about the news and how sometimes they seem to only report the bad things that happen in the world. She said that while the show is what started it, the news she saw sometimes didn't help. And while I do try to shield the kids from the really crappy news, sometimes I don't pay attention and something slips past. But I don't feel too bad because they usually don't pay attention and it's true so they do need to know what the world can be like.
Anyway, once I made it clear that television can show fictional bad stuff and that it can happen in the real world, I then tried to give her some tools to cope with those scary thoughts. She said when she was afraid of fires last year, the "fire alarms would creep her out" when she saw them. This made me immediately think of anxiety issues so I started there and said something along the lines of "well, if I saw a fire alarm, I'd tell it 'thank you for keeping me safe' because I'd know that when it went off, it meant there was a fire." She seemed to bite at the bait of that tool so I went with it and tried to apply it to her fear of bad guys. I told her the next time she thought of some scary bad guys, she should think of a paint can hitting their face. Or a spider crawling on them. Or an iron hitting them in the head. All those funny scenes from Home Alone that she laughs at, she should use to make the scary bad guy not so scary anymore.
It seems to have worked because she loved the idea. She started rattling off other funny and silly stuff that happened to Harry and Marv in Home Alone and was smiling and laughing. Now, I don't know if it actually worked or not, but to me, if she understood the concept well enough to add her own ideas, then it must have made sense to her. Which means she should be able to use it. I tried to tell her it may not help right away and she would need to practice it. I told her I used to have bad thoughts about scary things and that over time I had learned to stop thinking about them and making them happy thoughts instead. She didn't quite get this but I didn't tell her all the details about my bad thoughts. No sense giving her imagination more material to work with.
So in the end, I tucked her in, reminded her to think of those silly things from Home Alone, and went back to my popcorn and beer. I have yet to talk to her today about how things went but I'm hoping she survived the night and used her mental tools to fight off the bad thoughts. I'm also hoping this doesn't develop into some sort of full-blown anxiety issue with her. But that's just my own paranoia and anxiety kicking in. And being a protective parent. And just being a human.
Oh, and here's a little video to refresh your memory of Harry and Marv in Home Alone:
PS - I had to think long and hard about sharing this story. I didn't want to over-share as I'm often prone to do but I also wanted to share in case other parents have a similar scenario. I'm also becoming an advocate for speaking openly about mental health and removing the stigma that it often carries. I do go to therapy and I'm not afraid to say it. It's not something I advertise because I do fear that people will look at me like a freak but I will also talk about it because I want others to understand that it doesn't make me (or anybody else) a freak just because I get help. Along with all this, I struggled with the whole doctor/patient privilege theory about certain things remaining confidential. And while I'm no doctor and my daughter isn't a patient, I didn't want to violate that trusted bond. In the end I opted to share the meat of the story so that others may learn from it and to, maybe, drive some discussion about it. In the end I don't think I violated her trust in me by talking about it and I don't think I made her feel bad about being afraid.