There’s a Monster Under My Bed: An Emotional vs. Skills Approach
“Help, help there’s a monster under my bed!”
A sobbing child implores Parent A to rescue them from the monster. They want to sleep in the master bedroom where they will feel safer.
Just for the sake of example, let’s imagine a Parent B that is dealing with an exact replica of this situation in their home.
Parent A repeatedly reassures their child that there are no such things as monsters. They even search under the bed with a flashlight to prove it. They conjure up an invisible spray that’s guaranteed to ward off any monster alive. Eventually, the child winds up in Parent A’s bed.
Parent B does not get into whether or not the monster exists or logically could even fit under the bed. They listen to what their child is feeling but use this problem as a golden opportunity to teach them how to understand and manage worries. They lighten the mood by joking about how they got a special deal on the house because they agreed to let monsters sleep over in the kid’s room or say, “Oh yeah, that’s Henry. He’s an awesome monster I know from work.” The child is not allowed into Parent B’s bed. Realizing that it’s a slippery slope, Parent B will not be staying in the child’s bed either, even if the child bargains that it’s “just until I fall asleep.”
The Emotional Approach (EA)
Parent A. is using the EA which prioritizes addressing the child’s feelings. The primary goal of the EA in this situation is to get the child to calm down as quickly as possible so everybody can get some sleep no matter what it takes.
The problem here is that the EA tends to provide a quick but temporary fix. Parent A was the hero on the night this all started, but what about the next night? Poor Parent A is very likely to be right back in the same situation, only this time their child might make them check the closet for monsters too! Parents that rely on the EA may soon find themselves on a nightly, stressful and increasingly thankless monster patrol that is hard to stop.
Unfortunately, the EA:
1. inadvertently reinforces a child’s worries by treating them as something awful that needs to be fixed right away.
2. is self-reinforcing to the parent because the child likes it even as it’s becoming increasingly clear it doesn’t really help.
3. does not teach the child any positive coping skills at all.
The EA can lead to a child perceiving themselves as emotionally fragile and needing to be protected from their own feelings. It also allows the child’s feelings to rule the parent who’s supposed to be the leader.
Skills Approach (SA)
In contrast, the priority in the SA of Parent B is to build the child’s coping abilities for the long run. They show concern for the child’s distress but not at the expense of squandering a teachable moment.
Parent B is willing to tolerate that the child on the receiving end of the SA may react negatively until they really understand its rationale or develop better coping skills.
With age-appropriate language or visual aids a child can often comprehend the SA more readily than some parents might expect. However, of greater importance is that the parent have the fortitude to commit to using this approach regardless of the child’s reactions. Parent B is willing to lose a night’s sleep or more if that’s what it takes to teach them to cope.
In the SA, the real monster is conceptualized as the child’s difficulty tolerating and managing their worries.
The SA may be divided into three major steps:
1. validating the child’s emotional experience.
2. identifying the skill(s) the child needs to learn in order to deal with their worries.
3. helping the child build said skill(s) step-by-step. These skills include experiential and uncertainty tolerance.
Just to be clear, the SA does not include any monster search parties, or magical sprays! And, done artfully the SA can be provided with the same lovingkindness as the EA
The SA communicates to the child that they have the capacity to learn to handle their worries and are resilient not fragile beings, which builds their confidence in general. It also sends a clear message that their parent is far more interested in imparting life skills than appeasing them.
Using the SA reduces the likelihood that a child will engage in guilt-tripping or tantrums as tools to flee from their worries. Children that learn to manage their worries effectively may be able to apply these skills in other challenging situations as well.
The Big Picture
Most parents hope that their child will develop great coping skills rather than spend the rest of their lives worrying needlessly and having to be placated if any proverbial monsters under the bed show up later in life. Preparing a child well for the problems that they are bound to experience in their lives seems particularly relevant to consider in these pandemic impacted times.
Some parents might question how realistic it is to use the SA in real life. No judgment implied regarding any Parent As who are reading this. It’s far from easy to deal with a very upset child who just wants some comforting!
Without a doubt, the SA requires a lot more thought, effort and time from parents to achieve the desired results, But it will be worth it! If you are worried about using this method, it may help to think of the SA as the metaphorical monster under your own bed that you are determined not to let compromise your best parenting values.
Will the SA work equally well for all children and in all circumstances? Of course not, some children and situations are indeed more complicated than others. It’s also understood that our Parent A and Parent B are for illustrative purposes and that many actual parents are a little bit of both.
A parent in a particularly challenging situation with a worried child might consider consulting a knowledgeable clinician for guidance. This is when learning an effective parenting approach matters most.
It should be noted as well that the only time the EA might be recommended would be in response to a high-risk situation when immediate safety is the goal, e.g. if the child is truly on the verge of seriously harming themselves or someone else.
Lastly, if you had to choose would you want your child to be raised by a Parent A or a Parent B? Perhaps your answer will inspire you to give the SA a chance.
Jonathan Hoffman, Ph.D., ABPP