The children’s bedrooms were quieting down for the night. Stories had been read, prayers offered, and last drinks sipped. Jenna started to switch off the last light, the one in Brian’s room.
“No, Mommy, remember – you said I could have a nightlight on!” Brian sat up with wide eyes, untucking himself again. It was getting harder every night to get Brian settled down. He always needed one more something before Jenna would finally say “enough!” It seemed that Brian, the youngest at 7 years, had become afraid of the dark.
Jenna had been trying to identify the trigger for this dilemma. It began shortly after Chuck came home from his two-year stint in Iraq. Jenna was so grateful to have her husband back all in one piece, that their evenings became very precious. These were quiet times to talk, read together, or just watch TV. At first Chuck had suffered from nightmares, disturbances that sometimes even woke the children. But he quickly sought therapy and worked through the trauma with Jenna’s help. He hadn’t had a nightmare in several weeks, and they were enjoying these quiet times once more.
She wondered if Brian’s sudden reactions were due to jealousy, a plea for more of her time. While Chuck was gone Jenna would sit with each of the 3 children before bed, visiting about the day’s events and cuddling. She still lovingly put each child to bed, but admittedly spent less time doing it now that their daddy was home, sharing in the bedtime routine.
Wanting to get to the root of the problem, Jenna sat down on Brian’s bed and stroked his hair, coaxing him to crawl back under his Batman covers.
“What are you afraid of, Brian? You know there’s nothing in your room that can harm you. You aren’t having bad dreams, you’re afraid while you are awake. Tell me what is scaring you.” Trying to reason with a 7 year old is risky business, but she wanted to give him a chance to explain what he was feeling.
“I dunno,” he muttered, his head down. “There’s creepy shadows on my wall, and it’s scary when they move around. It makes my tummy feel funny. I don’t see them when the light’s on. Can we just leave a light on, OK?”
“Brian, those are just shadows from the street light shining on the trees in the front yard. They look like they’re moving when the wind blows. They can’t harm you.” Jenna spoke in gentle tones, hoping to soothe him.
“I know. But my tummy doesn’t understand. It still feels funny.”
“Honey, you just need to close your eyes so you don’t see them. Your eyes should be closed anyway, you know. You’re supposed to be going to sleep.” Jenna grinned and gave him a tickle under his chin. He tried not to grin, remaining serious.
“Even when I don’t look, I’ve seen them, and I know they’re there. Just like Daddy’s bad dreams. He doesn’t still see the bad things, but he knows they’re there.”
Oh, my, she thought. He’s mirroring Chuck’s experience. It’s not jealousy, it’s empathy. He’s trying to share his daddy’s feelings.
“OK, Brian. I’m going to leave your lamp on tonight. We’ll talk more about this tomorrow, but you need to close your eyes now and get to sleep. You know you are safe.” She planted a kiss on his forehead, switched the lamp to the nightlight setting and slowly left his bedside.
It was only minutes until Brian was breathing the soft puffy breaths of a cozy, sleeping child. Jenna walked quietly out of the room to the living room where Chuck was reading. As she explained to him what Brian had told her Chuck’s eyes filled with tears. He smiled wistfully, completely understanding about “knowing they’re there”. Touched by the sensitivity of his small boy, he told Jenna, “Leave the light on, honey. He’s going to be fine, but right now he needs that help.”
Chuck continued with his therapy, getting stronger and freer of stress as time passed. Brian attended some therapy sessions as well, and last night he forgot about the nightlight. He went to sleep in the dark.
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