When Isaiah was between two and three he would occasionally rip Carolann and me from our sleep with bloodcurdling screams that Stephen King might imagine. To me it sounded like our grandson was being mauled by some great beast.
Bolting from our bed and across the hall to his room, we would find him thrashing, screaming as if he was being dismembered and then going literally rigid. He was living, panting, trembling rigor mortis. We could not awaken him. We could only hold him and wait for it to pass. Eventually, it did.
The clinical term is “pavor nocturnus” – “Night Terror.” It can afflict anybody but fortunately children are usually spared more than a few of these episodes between the ages of two and six. Only fifteen percent have them at all and then they stop. Nobody really understands why.
But I think I do.
Yesterday I was given my very favorite gift: an invitation to stay with my youngest grandson, Tyler, while his mom and dad worked. Tyler and I have always had a grand time together. I push him on the swing outside and we sing and giggle together. I play with him and his Thomas Train. We read books, we watch Little Einsteins on TV. I feed him junk. I tickle him. He laughs. Tyler loves playing with his grandpa.
He not only pushed me away, he was pissed! And who can blame him? When your life is still counted in months you don’t have the communication skills to express fears and frustrations beyond your understanding. Yelling and kicking is about the only choice you have and that’s what Tyler did. He swung wildly, beating on my arms with woefully tiny fists as I gently took him from my son. He thrashed left and right, kicking and screaming, reaching out for his father.
“DADDY!!!! DADDY HOLD YOU!!!!!!”
My son was wracked with guilt for leaving him, even with me. I understood and gently urged him to leave us alone. He left but I know it was killing him.
Tyler is pushing three. He’s a senior toddler. His world is bursting with a 24/7 nonstop fireworks display of new confusions, new reason, new ways of processing information and the incessant assault of new ideas on his fresh sponge of a brain. Everything is a new experience, fascinating but potentially overwhelming. Imagine yourself strapped down on a mad scientist’s lab table with some sort of data super injector lashed to your head. That’s what my grandson is going through. At times it’s a carnival, at other times it’s a bad acid trip. It’s a virtual avalanche of sensory downloads, a cacophony of weird and terrifying celestial music, hard rock, and dazzling flashes of brilliant, shocking colors. This, in itself, is not new to him, it’s the mental state of all human beings at birth. What is different now is that Tyler has arrived at the age of reason and it’s emotional shadow, fear.
Tyler’s instinct is teaching him insecurity. It’s a horribly lonesome journey into a black jungle of faceless threats. And, of course, it is the only path that eventually leads to self-sufficiency. The job of parents and grandpas is to let go. Sometimes, by force.
I had similar experiences, of course, when Jeremy was Tyler’s age. For all of the bumps and hard times I’ve suffered, nothing was as hard as having to walk away from my son and not looking back while hearing him behind me screaming, “Daddy!” However long I live I would rather suffer anything before having to push my child away from me again. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, thankful that the time was behind me. What never occurred to me until yesterday was that I would someday have to watch my child let go of his.
Jeremy tore himself away and went to work, leaving his son in a heart-wrenching fit. I calmly, quietly, repeatedly, reassuringly asked Tyler to let me push him on the swing or play with the wooden Thomas Train or watch Einsteins but he spurned all invitations. I never tried to pick him up because a mere, gentle touch of his head would set him off again. I just let him finish his work. Finally, after a half hour of lying on the floor punctuating his soft crying with occasional angry screams and kicking, when he finally began to tire of it all – I smelled something.
“Tyler,” I asked softly, “do you want Grandpa to change your pants?”
He didn’t look at me but calmly said, “Okay.”
I picked him up. He didn’t kick. He laid his exhausted head on my shoulder and his arms around my neck. After I wiped his tears and nose; after changing his pants, I turned on the TV, put him in his favorite rocking chair, and I sat down on the couch. A moment later he got out of the rocker and came to sit next to me. He snuggled under my arm.
We were fine.
Next time somebody tells you about his kid’s “terrible twos” gently suggest he try to imagine it from the child’s perspective.
© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved