Mental milestones - FamilyEducation

Mental milestones

January 12,2009

You know how growth spurts in kids are always marked by physical and psychological changes? Sleeping through the night--or its converse, night waking? Increased appetite, or worries, or tantrums? You wonder whether something's happened to your child lately--what's set them off--and then they suddenly catch you by surprise. They seem taller, or more rounded, or their face has lost the curved cheeks of toddlerhood. In their eyes and lips and chin you can see a hint of who they will become in the decades ahead;  in their stubbornness or increased wisdom you see your older child, your teenager, or your future adult and (hopefully) best friend.

I think it makes sense that there would not only be physical growth spurts, but psychological and emotional ones, as well. After all, your child doesn't grow older without his or her mind expanding, right along with their larger realms of experience. This has happened to us. Our good sleeper T., our sunny, cheery-all-the-time girl has been having a heck of a time falling asleep these days. She's still doing it on her own, but it's taking her a loooooong time, and in between her "pop-ups" (I lost track of how many times she popped out of her bed last night), she's a weepy, clingy mess. She's had a night or two like this now and again, since learning to fall asleep on her own in her big bed.

"Please sleep with me," she'll beg me at night, squeezing my neck in a stranglehold with her arms.

"You can do it on your own, T." I'll tell her firmly. But inside I wrestle with my own angst. I long to slip into bed next to her, to feel her snuggle close, to ward off the night demons with my body so she'll sleep, at peace. I remember my own terrified nights when I was a child, as I lay in the dark, worried about life and death and everything in between. I've fought off the temptation to go back to our old ways of sleeping, so far. Scott and I take turns firmly walking her back to bed. We tuck her in, we sing lullabies, we bribe, sometimes we snap and fuss at her, and only then does she stay tucked in, when she realizes she's pushed us to the cranky point.

I know exactly what's frightening her at night; I think it coincides with the fact that she's turning five on Tuesday, and she's also been thinking an awful lot about the D word–Death. Not in heavy, obsessive ways, but at night these past couple of weeks, she'll throw out a worry or two about the topic:

“Don’t go, Mama! I’m afraid of your dying!”

She’s been fairly easily reassured–so far, at least. Maybe she lies awake, wrestling with this in her own way, in the dark, surrounded by her stuffed animal friends, with their loving, fuzzy faces. Maybe. The other night she asked me if everything dies.

“Yes,” I told her. “Everything that’s alive dies.”

“Except people,” she said confidently, with a smile.

I imagined a world in which people didn’t die, and that I could tell her this. But instead I told her that even people die, when they’re really, really old.

“I’m not old,” she declared, stretching her arms out into the dark.

But the next night the self-confidence was gone. She was afraid of everything: monsters, demons, death, creeping shadows. Her fuzzy green Care Bear, her favorite one, looked like a monster in the dark, she told me.

I feel a little helpless here. I think all kids must go through this mental growth spurt. I think it’s also one of the most painful–if not THE most painful–milestones in a child’s life. Almost as soon as we had kids, I dreaded the day we'd have to explain life and death to them. Somehow we've circumvented it with L. Even though we've had "death" discussions, he’s never directly asked about it, or shown his worries about the topic. It's there, a huge elephant in the room, but we've managed to ignore its presence so far (or maybe we've thrown a huge sheet over it all and pretended it's a piece of furniture).

I know T. will move past this, and her psyche will heal over this new understanding of life and death, loss and age. I don't think anyone ever recovers from learning about this, but you find ways to cope with the understanding. And what keeps me from crawling into bed with T. each night is knowing that she must find her way in the dark to her own comforts. It's a solitary battle, really, and one she's strong enough to fight on her own.