There is a scene in Patch Adams when Patch Adams (played by Robin Williams) is helping an in-patient go to the bathroom. The patient had an illogical fear of invisible squirrels that prevent the patient from leaving his bed to use the bathroom. Adams plays into the fear and helps “fight off” the squirrels so his roommate can finally relieve himself.
This is an excellent example of life with children.
Our son has been bathing himself for years. About age eight there was a time he would not go into the shower – hygiene be damned! When he asked him why he was adamant a shark was going to attack him.
To a grown adult this is most illogical and, if not careful, very annoying. But the problem does not go away simply because we as adults are annoyed and know for a fact that a shark will not attack a person in their bathroom shower. The problem is my son needs a shower and as parents, we had to figure out how to do this.
About this time period, our son began to complain of nightmares. He already sleeps a fraction of the time needed due to his needs, so not getting restful sleep is a big problem. For about two months his sleep of about four hours a night was constantly interrupted by nightmares. This meant he was mostly getting two hours of good sleep.
It would have been really easy to write it off. It would have been really easy to ignore. It would have been really easy to scold. But none of these things would fix the problem. We had to get creative. These are some things we learned about the “Patch Effect.
Often kids come up with the most illogical fears and make what appears to be the most illogical of choices. Without being open to listening to their rationale, you are setting yourself up for failure. You are setting yourself up to be angry, bitter, or irrational in your own frustration.
You need to be open to hear why they think this fear or choice makes sense. Often their logic is more logical than you may think. In the case of a shark attack, our little one explained he had seen an Octonauts episode where sharks attacked. He is also way into marine biology, so he knew this was a scientific fact. Our son knew sharks lived in water. In his mentally five-year-old mind, it made perfect sense that a shark could be in shower water. “Mom, all it has to do is come up the pipes!”
If alligators can live in the subterranean levels of New York, it makes sense that sharks can navigate our waters through pipes (however unlikely and impossible to do in a residential plumbing area).
Our first lesson was to ask – then get a laugh. Though I highly recommend keeping the laugh to yourself until after the child has left the area.
Meet them Where They Are
When I started explaining the logic of sharks in a shower, my son was kind and silent but it did nothing for his fear.
For nightmares, we had to think differently because nightmares change and are intangible.
At first, I tried the method my mom used with me. Imagine every nightmare is a book. Then go to the largest library you can think of. Then ask that petite little librarian with grey hair and glasses to return that book to a place no other child will have access to the book. The librarian takes the book and proceeds to walk up a tall staircase climbing to the sky. The sign above the staircase reads: “Do not lend under any circumstance.” And after forty-five minutes you see the librarian coming back down the stairs. The book has been lost to the stars.
This did not work. The pictures were not strong enough for my kiddo who thinks in pictures.
My problem was I was not meeting him where he was. I met him where I thought he should be. When we do this, we not only don’t solve anything, we may exacerbate the problem. We may even, and I hope and pray this does not happen, create a gorge between child and parent because the child will not feel like he is heard when he expresses these fears or problems.
So, how then do we solve the problem?
No amount of talking was going to get my son in that shower. That is the truth. What it took was quick thinking on my husband’s part. Hubby quickly went and grabbed the Nerf gun. With the shower curtain pulled (so our little one couldn’t see), we went deep sea fishing with the Nerf gun and made sure there were sharks in that shower.
We had to shark hunt daily for two weeks, but every day my son took a shower. Every day my son and husband had a great time bonding. Every day the fear got a little less.
We had to get creative. My son and I are praying for people. This helped, but is not a requirement. Dad and I started every night off after prayers for good dreams with a bit of a charade.
Either my husband or I would put my hands on our son’s head and pry out every bad dream, thought, emotion, and then toss them out the door. For good measure, my husband always added a kick and ordered them “And don’t come back! We don’t want you anymore!”
Then, using the artwork, lego builds, toys, and stuff animals in the room, our son picked the three things he wanted to dream about. Sometimes it was Optimus Prime, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Lego Firefighters, or nights it was his stuffed animal “staff the Tiger,” Bumble Bee, and dinosaurs. Once we had the “dreams” we would physically pretend to pick them up, roll them into a ball, and then toss (ever so gently) into our son’s head. We would confirm they landed by checking in his ears, his mouth, and his nose (gross…but it worked).
Our kiddo loved this so much! And after a few weeks of this new nightly routine of fun for comfort, he stopped complaining about nightmares.
The Patch Effect
We “patched” our kiddo’s fears and helped him get what he needed. What we learned, that Patch Adams and others have known for ages, is that there are three steps to helping anyone (but especially children) with their problems and fears – however irrational.
First, we need to be open and willing to hear the logic behind the fear/problem. This seems basic but in our current day and age when we move like lightning through every moment, this can be a challenge.
Second, meet them where they are. If we start a conversation on two different playing fields, the game will never be won. Be willing to jump off your field and cross over to theirs. You will learn a lot about your child, but also, you may just learn about yourself and life too.
Lastly, be creative! What works for one does not always work for another. I think my mom was right (and yes, I say this all the time – thank you, Mom), “You are different children with different needs.” What works for one kid does not always work for another. This is especially true when on the spectrum. If you have met or know one kid on the spectrum, you have met and known one kid on the spectrum.
Be willing to be silly. Think outside the box. Enjoy being a kid again – even if only for a moment. Take a lesson from Patch and enjoy the Gesundheit method.
***For more information on Patch Adams and the wonderful work he inspired check out the Gesundheit! Institute.
***Thank you NBC Miami News for sharing your awesome photography of the alligator.