Tuesday, October 27, 2009


My kids have been experiencing a resurgence of fears lately. It's a challenge for a parent to help their kids manage their fears in a rational way, and I'm learning that this becomes more challenging (for me) as the kids get older.

Sean is currently in the throes of developmentally age-appropriate separation/stranger anxiety. This happens because he has finally understood that he and I are separate people and his memory has developed to the extent that he can remember me when I'm absent. And since Mommy is the Source of All Goodness in the Universe, it means he freaks when he can't see me. This is difficult for both of us, but I also know it's a normal stage for appropriately attached toddlers to go through. Each child has experienced it differently in terms of intensity and duration, but the symptoms are generally the same: there is a toddler up my butt at all times.

I'm encouraged though--the symptoms seem to be easing just a bit. I'm often able to be in a different room from him for up to 3 minutes before the freak. He is fine with the babysitter (after the initial shock of course). He hung out with Kelly for a good 45 minutes at the farm the other day and did just fine. She said he kept looking for me, but didn't get sad. It helps that he knows her so well, but even a few weeks ago, this might not have been such a pleasant experience for either of them!

Morgan's fears are more sophisticated and imaginative. For her, it boils down to one thing: demons. Yes, we're very clear with her about the fact that demons are pretend. But really, it doesn't matter--even though she knows they aren't real, she fears the idea of them all the same.

It's interesting that she can handle other things that you might imagine would scare a child of 4.5. We've recently seen the firstand thirdIndiana Jones movies. None of the face melting or crumbling into dust seemed to bother her in the least. I was about 10 when I saw the face melting and was thoroughly traumatized. And just so nobody is worried--we watched these movies with the kids slowly over the course of several days, taking breaks when things became worrisome, and talking with them about what happened. We tend to do that when they want to see something that we think might be hard for them to handle intellectually or emotionally. (We also don't initiate such things--I'm not in a big hurry to have them watch Indiana Jones, especially. This was a request of hers that we decided to honor, in a way in which we could observe her and support her if necessary.)

The way we handle fears of imagination is generally to provide lots of comfort during the upset times, remind them occasionally how pretend the thing is, and we also fight fantasy with fantasy. I think one key component to getting over any kind of fear is feeling somewhat in control of the situation. Sometimes, it's enough to have control over avoiding your fear. Sometimes, you need to be more proactive.

Hence, Demon Spray. Before Morgan goes to bed, if she expresses concerns about the demons in her room, we give her a small spray bottle with water in it. We told her, "Well, you know demons are just pretend, right? But you're still scared and I understand. Why don't we pretend this bottle is filled with Demon Spray? Demons hate getting wet and they hate Demon Spray most of all! So you just spray this around your room and those demons will stay out!" This makes her feel better, it really does.

By the way, demons also hate flowers, My Little Pony, Hello Kitty, pink walls, purple polka dots, purple curtains, stuffed dogs of any size or color, and butterflies. Isn't it nice that her room is so thoughtfully set up so as to discourage demon activity? We even gave her one of our little gargoyles to guard her room. He sits in her window, just triple-dog-daring any demons to get in there.

Ryan went through a similar thing with pirates at her age. Pirate Spray and room decor did the trick. I know this phase will pass for her . . . eventually.

Ryan's fears are more sophisticated still. He's always been a cautious sort, a worrier, and he's always had a hard time with separations. It was weeks before he'd walk into chess class confidently and without a pep talk/limit setting by me.

Now he's really beginning to get caught up in Real Life Fears. He freaked out at the fact I send in our homeschool paperwork once a month. Why do I need to do this? What do they need to know this stuff for? Why do they make silly laws? What will happen if I don't send in the papers? How can we get them to change that law? Can we do that NOW?

Don't get him started on Obama or taxes. He hears us talking, and hears our opinions about such things. We no longer have satellite television, and only rarely listen to news on the radio. Which is good, because we'd certainly have to give those things up now. As it is, Brendan and I need to be more guarded about how we talk about political issues.

I think it's fine for us to give him information and tell him our opinion about them. But we need to try to be more matter-of-fact in how we talk about politics and I think we need to try to do it less frequently. He just doesn't have the full context or maturity to understand what we're talking about, yet he's bright enough and imaginative enough to be able to draw amazingly accurate conclusions. Which he then worries about. And yet, I don't want to censor myself completely, or shelter him completely, but there's a fine line here that I'm still trying to locate.

And last week, our car got broken into. :o( What happened was that some person(s) went down our street early in the morning, testing car doors. Many of our neighbors had stuff swiped out of their cars. I had forgotten to lock the van door the night before, due to a late-night grocery store run, and our GPS was stolen. Brendan's car was locked, which was a good thing, since his computer was in it!

This event could not have happened at a worse time for Ryan developmentally. I was irritated about the loss of our GPS, but other than the fact that it had all of our addresses programmed into it, I'm not terribly upset. And we're really more careful about locking our doors, of course. But the fact is, it's just a thing. Things are replaceable, or do-without-able. It is also upsetting to think that someone was in our van, touching our things, especially because we live in a safe neighborhood in a safe suburb. I suspect that it was probably just stupid teenagers. (Brendan is not so sure.)

Ryan is very worried though. I've been letting him lock the cars at night, again, to give him some measure of control over the situation. We often have him help lock up the house at night, too. But Bad Guys have always been an issue with him, and this incident certainly didn't help.

By the way, don't ever ever EVER cross this kid. He is actively calling for EXECUTION as the ideal way to deal with the thugs who took our GPS system. Reminds me of that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where they visited a crime-free planet. It was crime-free because the penalty for any crime was instant death. Poor Wesley Crusher stepped on some plants and that was bad news. This is pretty much Ryan's dream legal system.

The other issue with his fears--and this is very much a Ryan Thing--is that he needs to TALK about them. He worries aloud and fears aloud and dreams up retribution aloud and questions aloud and makes plans and strategies and tactics. Aloud. Until you've gone completely insane.

I talk back (it's very much a Jenn Thing) and usually try to turn the focus around to Things Within Our Control. I often just let him vent, but he tends to get stuck in Worry Cycles (wow is he ever MY child!), and works himself up into tears with his worries. I know that as I've figured out how to better manage my own tendency to worry and imagine the worst-case scenario for any given problem (no matter how small), I personally feel better when I remember to focus on the things in my control. So that's my tactic--but I'm looking for more ideas!!!!!

We've altered how we do things around here because of his lengthy, vicious Worry Cycles. We used to have to prepare Ryan waaaaaaay in advance for any changes--leaving to go somewhere, a class, a babysitter, even a visitor. He needed time to prepare himself, to imagine what might happen, to ask questions and get answers, and to talk and talk and talk and talk about it as he processed the anticipated change.

Now, because of this new phase he's in, we do the complete opposite. We now give him very little time to adjust to a change. Babysitter coming tonight? Tell him 5 minutes before she shows, or maybe when she knocks at the door. If he asks, we answer him honestly, but we don't dwell on the subject. Going to the park, let's go NOW! Leaving the park--time to GO! Chess class coming up? Don't mention it until we're loading up into the car to go to class. Taekwondo sparring night? Time to get dressed and GO!

This has been a difficult change to make because I'm so used to providing him with a lot of lead time. But when I remember to do it, it's made our transitions much easier on all of us. In fact, I just asked him about this, and he agrees that he'd rather know about things right when they're about to happen instead of having lots of time to think about it. When asked why, he said "Because I'm good at guessing things. But sometimes I guess things that make me worry." Yup. And that's pretty good self-awareness for a 7.5 year old, isn't it?

I know that eventually, his brain will mature and he will be better able to handle his fears. I think the best thing to do is help him find strategies for coping with his fears and to try to reassure him that he is safe and that we will keep him safe.

More ideas?

By the way, for a great discussion on a related topic--death--check out the OGrownups list! Diana shared what she wrote on that thread here. You don't have to be an Objectivist to lurk on the group (although you do if you'd like to post). I've enjoyed the discussions on this list--very thought-provoking!


Travis N said...

"there is a toddler is up my butt at all times" cracked me up -- both because of the typo / grammar snafu (pleasantly reminiscent of "all your base are belong to us"), and because there is a toddler is up *my* butt at all times, too. (Evidently daddies, too, can be, for some, The Source of All Goodness in the Universe.)

Rational Jenn said...

HAHAHA! You know, there was something off about that, but I must have been reading too quickly. Proofreading is hard sometimes! Thanks for letting me know.

And yeah, Daddies are pretty Good, too. Mine shouts "Daddddeeehh!" whenever he sees my husband. Pretty good stuff. :o)

Amy said...

That is amazing self-awareness, for Ryan to understand how he can work himself up to worrying. I like how you explained why and how you had to change his advance warning. Those types of shifts are hard for the parent, after developing the earlier habits.

I'm wondering if another change might help him too: less talking. I know you talk back because that's the way you are too, but you might think about setting a limit on discussion of things such as the car break in, etc. I'm not sure how you'd leave the door open for more talking, though, because you obviously don't want him stewing internally and feeling like he can't come to you. Maybe you tell him that, for subjects that worry him, you agree to keep the discussion to 5 or 10 minutes or whatever you think is the amount of time for him to talk it through but not get to the stage we call "spinning" here in my house, aka, "the what-if's." Then you both go away and think about it on your own for a while. Then, if he needs to talk more, he can come back to you and have another 5 minutes. And repeat. Something like that.

Regarding "spinning" or the "what if's," have you, along with focusing on what you CAN control, explained to Ryan the parallel lesson about what you CANNOT control, and how he'll need to learn to accept this?

I am a spinner myself, so I get it.

Jennifer Snow said...

One thing I've found you can do about anxieties is to make light of them. I don't mean you should make light of Ryan's anxieties, I mean that you should make light of your own when it's obvious that you're overreacting. Ryan will very likely pick this up from you and start doing it himself.

I do this because I have a very silly tendency of my own to always assume the worst. When people are late, for instance, I always immediately assume things like "gosh, I wonder if they were in a horrible accident! Maybe they're dead!"

So, I told all my friends about this, and now, whenever someone is late, I'm greeted by a helpful and silly "maybe he's dead!" from everyone else. It's great!

Rational Jenn said...

Amy, thanks for your comments. I do think we need to try to limit the spinning. I do this when he's arguing with me and the argument keeps going around and around. I say "I've said all I'm going to say about this." or "I'm all done with this conversation."

I think I need to find a general statement I can use for the worrying. Maybe I can suggest that we can take a break from the conversation, once the initial wave of of worry has calmed down. Something like, "I know this is still worrying you, but we've talked about the things in your control and you know I'm here for you. But let's take a break from this right now, because I think you're starting to worry all over again. What would you like to do instead?" Hmmm...maybe?

As for telling him what's NOT in his control....that's funny you mentioned it. We've touched on this too, usually in conflict situations. "I know Morgan isn't doing what you want her to, but she's in charge of her body, and if she doesn't want to play she doesn't have to." and when he resists further, "You don't get to say what Morgan does. That's something not in your control."

And boy does that ever piss him off!!! :o)

We've talked about how we can't control whether and when lightning strikes, that it just happens sometimes. But that we can prepare and do our best to be safe from it (Lightning used to be a Big Thing). I bet if I compared his worries to the lightning, he'd understand. I might gently do that next time. Thanks!

Rational Jenn said...

Jennifer--I really like that playful parenting technique! Obviously, it needs to be used carefully, but I think I might be able to find a way to do that. We have used that to a degree with Obama. "Oh that silly Obama, thinking he's in charge of us!"

But I'll think of ways to use this idea. It's a good one. Kind of reminds me of Rowling's boggarts, and the spell "Ridikulus!" Because that's really the point she was trying to make, wasn't it? That one way we can deal with our fears is by changing the way they appear. Thanks!