My son is a child of divorce, and I’m sure that adds to the usual childhood neuroses, fears, quirks and issues – -I know it did with me. My boy is pretty bright, and it seems that his intellect only illuminates those fears, and makes them more colorful. It’s often hard to know what is right to say. And often, when the world is as imperfect as it is, there is nothing “right” available to say.
Like me, The Boy tends to get fixated on interests. He went through a space obsession a few years ago, and during it he learned that at some point, the sun will explode. He knows intellectually that this won’t occur until long after he’s around to care about it, but that didn’t stop those pesky fears. For a long time last winter the refrain before bed, every night, was “MOM. I’m worried the sun will explode tonight.” My approach back then was to comfort the fear, but not feed the fixation. After I comforted the fear, I’d make a remark or two about how there’s no way that would happen — he’s not getting out of school that easy. Eventually the Sun Explosion fears fell away.
Until tonight. He’s been having a difficult week on a number of fronts, and tonight I got called back to the bedroom after the light went out for the first time in months. “Moooooooommm. Come here please. It’s hard to explain.” (Note the preemptive argument as to why I needed to come back in. Because it’s hard to explain by yelling across the house.)
“How do I stop thinking about how the sun is going to explode.” This was not a question. It was a demand. Here is a 9-year-old, asking for help with obsessive thoughts.
I immediately thought of a book that I relied on during my divorce. I’ve pulled a lot of things out of the hat when I was on the spot as a parent, but this is the first time that Man’s Search For Meaning has been a parenting guide. The author of that book, Viktor Frankl, pioneered a form of therapy called logotherapy, before he was sent to a series of concentration camps by the Nazis. During that ordeal, his manuscript on logotherapy — his life’s work — was destroyed. Man’s Search for Meaning was the re-write, augmented by his experiences in the camps.
In it, he writes about something called paradoxical intention. He describes this in an anecdote about helping a client deal with insomnia:
The fear of sleeplessness results in a hyper-intention to fall asleep, which, in turn, incapacitates the patient to do so. To overcome this particular fear, I usually advise the patient not to try to sleep but rather to try to do just the opposite, that is, to stay awake as long as possible. In other words, the hyper-intention to fall asleep, arising from the anticipatory anxiety of not being able to do so, must be replaced by the paradoxical intention not to fall asleep, which soon will be followed by sleep.
“Don’t stop trying to think about the sun exploding,” I told him. “In fact, that’s what I want you to concentrate on. Come on now. You can do it. Under no circumstances should your mind wander to Legos, your XBox, Harry Potter, pumpkin pie, getting a haircut, Selena Gomez, macaroni and cheese, or the latest Magic Tree House book.”
He giggled. This was unexpected. I said good night again and popped my head back in ten seconds later. “I”m serious now. Focus on the sun!”
He was asleep in three minutes.
Sometimes you get lucky.