“Mommy, I’m scared!”
I look around the room. The Pinocchio clock on the wall announces the advancing evening with swinging legs. Light creeps in behind blackout curtains, the sun still holding on to the waning light of summer. There are no obvious shadows, creepers, and even my son’s resident ghost seems to be already slumbering. It is a typical, quiet night in his room.
“What are you scared of?”
His breathing quickens as he snuggles closer to me. I can feel his heartbeat tap-tap-tapping.
“I’m so scared because I was locked in the bathroom!”
My mind starts to comb through the possibilities — where could this have happened? Did it happen tonight, and I didn’t notice? A wave of shame starts to creep over me — maybe I was too busy to notice?
I take a deep breath to calm my own triggered nervous system, and ask:
He’s shaking now — the fear response undulating through his body, his amygdala turning on all of signals in his body to let him know — it’s time go go. or fight. or freeze.
“Don’t you remember?! At the Shabbat playground!”
The memory sweeps over me, but its corners are fuzzy, as this event happened many months ago — on a conspicuously warm Shabbat in April. I remember — of course, I do. His sudden appearance behind the bathroom building, tears streaming down his face, which was red with effort and emotion, his body shaking — that’s not something I can easily forget.
He’s still breathing rapidly -taking loud, angry gasps as he recounts the story to me. He was in the men’s bathroom. He couldn’t open the door. He was screaming. He got down to the floor to see if he could spot feet passing under the door. Someone opened it. He ran out. His words echoed with fear as he described how he screamed for help, but no one seemed to hear him. The intensity of his emotions was palpable. The memory of this incident remained real and vivid in his mind, and in his body.
“Yes, I remember. You’re right, that was really scary. Thank you for telling me how you’re feeling. I am here for you, and we can handle this together.”
As parents, we are often privy to our children sharing their daily experiences with us — ranging from the mundane: “guess what flavor we had of ice pop today?” — to the more serious: ‘“I got hurt today.” Sometimes, our children will remember something that happened to them months, or even years ago and relive it as though it were happening to them in the moment. It is easy to be tempted to dismiss such tellings, instructing our children to leave the past where it belongs: behind them.
As adults, this is how many of us choose to cope with situations we’ve been in that have made us feel uncomfortable: we leave them in the past. That awkward conversation at the party? — just let it go. That email I shouldn’t have sent? — nothing I can do about it now.
We think that we can move past the moments by pushing through the memory, and pushing it away. The truth is, however, that these memories are stored deep within our bodies, and when they emerge — we feel the feelings all over again. Those who are lucky to have people in their lives that can offer a supportive ear can, perhaps, talk through the feelings, and lighten the physiological burden. For others, however, those emotions remain at their intensity, creating permanent patterns that can ignite at any moment. The memory remains as real as the incident itself. This system is the same for the awkward email, or the traumatic event from our past. As adults, it becomes much harder to un-learn these patterns of emotional repression.
Young children cannot leave the past in the past. When a memory emerges, they are living the emotions as though the event were happening right then and there. For my son, it was no longer bedtime — he was stuck in the mens’ room, screaming for his life. It is in these moments that we have a precious opportunity to strengthen the bond with our little ones, and lay the foundation for trust and open communication.
While these retellings may appear trivial to adults, the importance of hearing his story lies in the profound lesson it teaches about supporting our children through their fears, no matter the size. When we take the time to actively listen, it communicates to our children that their feelings matter, and that we have the capacity to be present for them in those moments.
It tells them, “I am here. I can hold this with you. I love you.”
When children feel comfortable sharing even their smallest fears with their parents, they develop a strong sense of trust. This trust, in turn, builds their confidence in knowing that their parents will be there for them during life’s bigger challenges. It empowers them to speak openly about their feelings, fostering a healthy emotional connection and resilience in the face of adversity. It tells them — I’m here for you, no matter what.
When our children share memories from the past, being able to create space for them shows them that we accept, validate, and even understand their emotions. Conversely, when we dismiss such sharing with, “oh that happened months ago! Don’t worry about it!” we teach them that their emerging feelings are actually not worth listening to.
While my son wasn’t currently locked in the bathroom, his brain and body were experiencing the fear as though he were. Reassuring him that it is normal to feel scared even when recalling something from the past, teaches him that all of his emotions are welcome — even the ones that feel hard. It teaches him that he can share things with me that felt scary to him, and that I wouldn’t react with anger, fear, shame, or disappointment — I would react with love, presence, and understanding.
It is easy to forget that their emotional world is still developing, and even seemingly resolved incidents can leave a lasting impact on their young minds. When we lend a listening ear to their small fears, we foster emotional resilience, teaching them that their feelings matter and deserve attention
Tonight it was being locked in the bathroom, but another night it might be something much bigger. Those who work in the abuse-prevention space (see Rahel Bayar) often talk about the importance of these small moments. They foster trust between the child and caregiver, and allow for children to feel safe talking about their big feelings — especially about moments where they felt deeply uncomfortable. Knowing they have a safe haven in their parents, they are more likely to turn to us during moments of difficulty, confident in the knowledge that they will be heard and supported.
Recognizing that my son was still experiencing a physiological surge of fear, I guided him through one of the breaths we use to regulate his body — in this case, the “I Am Safe” breath. (← Video of how to do it)
Breathe in, arms out. Breathe out, cross them over your chest saying “I Am Safe”. Finish with a squeeze of the shoulders. Repeat until the body feels calm.
In this simple breath, we are stimulating the vagus nerve with vocalization, regulating breathing with deep, mindful breaths, and turning on the parasympathetic nervous system with the cross-body hug and shoulder squeeze.
The simple yet powerful breathing exercise helped him calm and regulate his body, easing the grip of fear on his young heart. With a calm body, he was able to talk about what he learned from his frightening experience months ago.
“When I need to go somewhere, like the bathroom, I need to make sure that a grownup knows where I am.”
Offering space, presence, and love allowed him to move through the wave of emotions- feeling validated and supported. rather than Let us remember that small fears can be as significant as big ones, and by taking the time to listen, we lay the foundation for open communication and unwavering support as they journey through life.