My son has a severe phobia of thunderstorms, and I like to say it’s all Daniel Tiger’s fault.
Three years ago, when I was in the throes of adjusting to life with a newborn and a three-year-old, Daniel was our third parent. I could turn on an episode during long nursing sessions or while I went to put the baby down for a nap, and my son Nathan would sit for 22 minutes, mesmerized. Daniel encouraged trying new foods, sharing, and there was a whole arc that summer about a new baby sister that seemed divinely ordained. Nathan soaked up every lesson, and I patted myself on the back for choosing the perfect show: equal parts educational and entertaining.
It was all great, until the thunderstorm episode. Nathan had been blissfully unaware of the existence of thunderstorms until this point. He never batted an eye at a rumble of thunder or flash of lightning. The loudest storms wouldn’t wake him in the middle of the night; I can remember carrying his sleeping form downstairs during a tornado warning more than once. He didn’t know to be scared, so he wasn’t. That all changed as he watched Daniel and O the Owl become afraid of a thunderstorm in the Land of Make Believe. His eyes were opened to a previously undetected threat, and he learned a new lesson: fear.
At first, his reactions were pretty typical: he would jump at the first clap of thunder and scurry to sit next to me. I’d give him a reassuring hug and distract him with a game or toy, and he would quickly forget the storm as he immersed himself in playing. Three years later though, his fear has grown into full-blown terror. He eyes anything other than a cloudless, blue sky with suspicion—could a thunderstorm be imminent? On cloudy days he’s reluctant to play outside or stray far from home, because sometimes clouds mean rain and sometimes rain means storms. Nathan doesn’t decide to do something based on whether or not he thinks he will enjoy it, but on that day’s weather forecast.
Meanwhile, my husband and I have tried every tool in the parenting toolbox to assuage his worries. We’ve talked about how thunder is just a sound and sounds can’t hurt us. We’ve checked out books from the library that explain the science behind thunderstorms and lightning, knowing that sometimes we fear what we don’t understand. We have encouraged safety rules: stay indoors, away from windows, when there’s a storm. We’ve made concessions: yes, if a storm wakes you up in the middle of the night, you can come sleep on the floor in our room.
It’s a heartbreaking thing to see the fear and panic in his eyes when the first roll of thunder rumbles. My arms wrap around his thin shoulders and I whisper in his ear that he’s going to be fine, and that the storm won’t hurt him. Without fail, our conversation unfolds the exact same way every time.
“But how do you know, Mom?” he will ask. “How do you know the lightning won’t get us?”
“Nathan, bud, remember: what’s my job?”
“To keep me safe.”
“That’s right. I promise I will keep you safe during this storm.”
Usually my reminder is enough to keep the crushing fear at bay. And then of course, no storm lasts forever. As the thunder fades and the rain lets up, Nathan visibly relaxes. The sun breaks through; the threat is gone, at least temporarily.
We’ve tried everything to help Nathan manage his fear, and while some of what we’ve tried helps, nothing has calmed his anxiety completely. As you can imagine, we’ve received various nuggets of well-meaning advice.
Why don’t you tell him there’s nothing to be afraid of? Well, that’s not really true. Lightning can hurt you. His fear is disproportionate to the threat, but the threat still exists.
Why don’t you just distract him? We do some, but first we validate the fear. At the core, it’s an instinctual self-preservation. Nathan’s gut is telling him there’s something to be afraid of, and we don’t want to completely invalidate that. It’s more about managing his response to fear and less about pretending the fear doesn’t exist.
As challenging as it is to help Nathan learn to control his panic and anxiety about thunderstorms, there’s something to be said for a fear we can see and name. There’s also the satisfaction of being the antidote: my arms, my calming words, my presence is enough. He trusts me to keep him safe, and, so far, I’m able to do so.
It won’t always be so simple.
Someday he will learn I can’t keep him safe, not really. There are dangers in this world that I’m not strong enough to guard against, and then there are also the threats that come from his own mind: self-doubt, guilt, lack of self-worth. He will see there’s plenty to be afraid of in this life and how easy it is to let fear draw the boundaries of our lives for us.
Dreams go unpursued. Love stays unrequited. Differences remain misunderstood. The chance of a storm keeps us from seeing the world.
In the Daniel Tiger episode that ruined everything, Daniel’s mom tells him, “Close your eyes and think of something happy,” during the storm. Maybe she meant it as a distraction, but it’s also a profound truth.
Fear is heavy and oppressive. It crowds out everything else if given the chance and will absolutely revel in calling the shots. It takes a deliberate effort to focus on joy to put fear in the proper perspective.
It’s a lesson I could stand to listen to as well. Nathan and Daniel are only afraid of thunderstorms, after all. My own fears—of failure, of missed opportunities, of embarrassing mistakes—those are the ones that lead to a life that feels woefully unfulfilled when they’re the loudest voices in my head. When I’m whispering, “Remember bud, we can’t let the fear win,” it’s as much for me as it is for him.
That’s the funny thing about parenting, though. You think you’re shaping their character when really, they’re shaping yours. Together, we’re talking more about joy and less about fear. Joy in other people, in experiences, in accomplishing something that requires bravery and strength.
We don’t have to vanquish our fears, but we can’t put them in charge, either. Fear gets a voice, but not a vote. It can come along for the ride, but it sure can’t drive. That’s joy’s job.
Fearful moms raise fearful kids, and I want more than that for my children. I want more than that for me. Together, we are choosing something different.
We are choosing joy, and that’s no small thing.
Photo and words by Jennifer Batchelor.