Let’s talk about the nightmares. Not the waking nightmare that is life in a pandemic, but the regular sleeping kind, and not my nightmares (though they are wild these days), but my kid’s. Pre-COVID, my seven-year-old went to bed easily after an involved but mostly pleasant bedtime routine, sweetly sang and chattered to herself for fifteen minutes or so after I left the room, and then promptly passed out. She slept through the night, every night, and generally didn’t disturb the household until she popped out of bed refreshed and ready to play at 6:30 the next morning. She averaged maybe a nightmare a year.
A few weeks into COVID, that all changed. First she had one bad dream: I had given her an owl for a pet and she kept it in a cage in her room, and after a week she realized it was dead, that it had been dead the whole time. We got her back to bed without too much drama, but the memory of it lingered, and scared her off sleep for the next week. Just as the fear was starting to dissipate, she had another , and then another a few days after that, and then it was three nightmares three nights in a row, and then there was one hideous night where she had three separate nightmares, each necessitating a trip to my room, my husband and I trading off increasingly drawn-out and unsuccessful attempts to comfort her, and much begging to just sleep in our room. Bedtime became an anxious, pleading affair. She desperately wanted to sleep in our room or us to sleep in hers. I tried to be her soft place. I held her in my arms, sang songs, prayed, breathed deeply, and talked her through guided meditations, but turned to stone when she tried to disrupt the family sleeping arrangements. I am the jealous guardian of sleep: of my own, my daughter’s, and everybody else’s. I know about kids climbing into bed and never getting out, and wasn’t about to let that happen on my watch. Even with me policing the parental bed, none of us were sleeping much. Most nights I spent hours lying in bed, wired with adrenaline, just waiting for the next scream.
The nightmares were all variations on that first bad dream: dead owls, dead squirrels, a dead guinea pig, a dead anthropomorphic fried egg named Gudetama. It was the animals that threw me off, made me slow on the uptake. That and the exhaustion. What is going on??? I fumed. Why is this happening to us now??? How can we make it stop???
It wasn’t until the specter of the nightmares manifested in the middle of our daylight hours that I realized. D had been resisting taking walks outside with me for days. I knew she had seen a dead squirrel in the park with her dad and was afraid of seeing another one, so we kept strictly to the sidewalks. Still, every time we saw a squirrel scamper in the distance, she flinched. “The squirrels aren’t going to hurt you, kiddo. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.” She looked up at me with fear in her eyes: “What if a squirrel runs up to us and dies?” I started to respond—“Why would a squirrel run up to us and d_____”—and then trailed off when it hit me. She knew all about the virus. She knew she wasn’t allowed to touch anything outside because it lingered on surfaces. She knew we had to cross to the street when we saw the neighbors coming because it traveled through the air. For all she knew, coronavirus was everywhere, all the time, infecting all the animals she ever loved, and probably all the people too.
This, of course, was the result of us trying to keep our kid informed while shielding her from the worst truths about the pandemic. We didn’t talk about the death toll. We reassured her that most people who got sick got better. But kids aren’t stupid. They know life doesn’t shut down for a bad cold. I asked my therapist what to do. “It might be time to talk to her about death.”
I did start talking to my kid about death, but those conversations are complicated and controversial so I’m not going to get into it now. Instead, I’m going to tell you the bedtime hack for anxious kids that I discovered while I was trying to sort out what I could possibly say to my daughter about death that would provide her with comfort and security given that my belief system has been abstracted to the point of being unrecognizable to believers and non-believers alike.
This is how I tricked my daughter into going to bed relaxed and happy instead of working herself into the kind of fearful frenzy that only breeds bad dreams–i.e., how I taught my daughter to stop worrying and learn to love bedtime:
Every night, the moment I hear the words start to come out of her mouth–“Mama, I’m scared I’m going to have a bad dream”–I shush her and say, “Echo: play music by the Beach Boys.”
Every night, without fail, the lush harmonies and dulcet tones of “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B,” which now form the soundtrack for entire evenings in our house, sometimes beginning right after dinner, lull her my daughter into a sense of well-being better than any drug I’ve ever taken. She dances and sings and climbs into bed at ease. I promise to stay outside her room for five minutes in case she needs me and listen to her chatter herself to sleep. If I stay longer than five minutes it’s only because I’m writing these diary entries. She hasn’t had a nightmare in about two weeks now. I’m still having freaky dreams on the reg, but can’t complaint. At least we’re all sleeping through the night.