Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad...Well, Everything? Comforting Your Child Is a Challenge When Even ‘Sesame Street’ Can Cause Anxiety Attacks

By Marjorie Ingall

Published January 27, 2006, issue of January 27, 2006.
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Maxine, now 15 months old, has worked through her irrational fear of the stuffed Eeyore, the little wooden incense holder and “Harvey Nagila,” the battery-operated, clap-activated, dancing Hasid. (I, however, am still afraid of Harvey.)

But Josie, age 4, is going through an anxious time. Music in a minor key, such as “Peter and the Wolf,” scares the living daylights out of her. Even the most innocuous children’s movies freak her out; the smallest hint of on-screen conflict makes her whimper. She wants Jonathan or me to sit up with her until she falls asleep. In the middle of the night, she’s been coming into our room multiple times, saying: “I’m scared! I need a snuggle!” She’s started biting her nails.

What’s she so worried about? She doesn’t pay taxes. She didn’t see Mariah Carey’s gown at the Golden Globe awards. As far as I know, she is unaware of her government’s penchant for secretly wiretapping its citizens. So what’s going on here? What am I, as a parent, doing wrong?

Kiki Schaffer, the social worker at the 14th Street Y’s Parenting & Family Center, has been reassuring as ever. “Her fears are totally normal,” she told me. “Four is right on target for waking up in the middle of the night. Does she say she’s afraid of wild animals?” She does! Even a photograph of a bear on “Sesame Street” makes her antsy! “Wild animals can represent a child’s own rage,” Kiki explained. “The tiger is inside you; it’s much too scary to wrap your brain around ‘I’m angry at my parents.’” Josie does indeed seem angry more often, which baffles me. Everyone talks about the terrible twos, but I’d never heard about the terrible fours! Yet she’s testing limits all over the place, throwing more tantrums, slamming doors like a teenage drama queen. This morning, when told she couldn’t wear a filmy-white sleeveless party dress to school, she screamed on and off for 10 minutes. “This age is a time of big, broad personality and loudness and more dramatic play and questioning things,” Kiki said. “It’s an out-of-bounds age.”

And Josie’s quotidian struggles may be exacerbating her fears. School, with big, loud kids in the halls and aggressive contemporaries in her very own class, may be stressing her out. She’s always been super-sensitive to other people’s emotions; could she now be picking up on Jonathan’s and my work and money frustrations? She adores the Magic School Bus books, which explain scientific concepts in an approachable way, but does this very imaginative kid worry about bacteria racing through her body when she’s sick? Frustratingly, she refuses to talk about her anxieties beyond “bears” and “monsters.”

I also wonder whether she’s picked up on Jonathan’s and my stress about — and disagreement on — how to handle her waking in the middle of the night. I’m happy to let her sleep on the floor of our room on a nap mat, as long as she doesn’t wake us up. Jonathan wants her in her own bed, both for our privacy and because he’s concerned that dust and drafts on the floor will affect her asthma. “There’s no right answer,” Kiki assured us. “Different solutions work for different families.” I’m willing to try to wean Jojo from the mat, so Kiki advised: “First talk about how we’re not going to use the mat anymore, then plan on doing the comforting in her room. Don’t get angry at her if she wakes up frightened, but you can set limits.” Jonathan already came up with the idea of giving Josie her own flashlight to turn on when she gets frightened. She loves it. Kiki approves. “You want her to take on the responsibility for her fears; with the flashlight, she’s in control,” she explained.

Kiki suggests choosing a quiet time of day (as if we have so many of those!) to talk about strategies for dealing with scary things. We can use storytelling, drawing, acting out scenarios with stuffed animals and dolls. Stories about outfoxing fear are also good; perhaps that’s why Josie so loves “The Tale of Rabbit and Coyote” by Tony Johnson (Putnam Juvenile, 1994), a retelling of a Oaxacan folktale about a rabbit repeatedly outwitting and punishing the coyote who wants to kill and eat him. Kiki added, “Kids also love stories about what we did when we were little.” So yesterday, I tried telling Josie about my own childhood fears. I’d thought I’d only succeed in instilling new anxieties, or frightening her more, but no. She was huge-eyed and spellbound as I told her about my fear of our dank basement, and my nighttime ritual of turning off the light and then racing to jump into bed and pull the covers up over my head before I could count to 10. “You were scared!” she crowed.

One book that terrified Josie was “The Sissy Duckling” by Harvey Fierstein (Simon & Schuster, 2002). I made the mistake of not reading it through before showing it to her, and I won’t make that error with a book or movie again. When the Sissy Duckling’s daddy rejects him as an embarrassment to the flock and hisses, ‘”He’s no son of mine!” Josie started to wail. I know she’s terrified that her father and I will stop loving her. I suspect this is tied to Maxine’s arrival on the scene, as well as to Josie’s guilt and fear about her own out-of-control tantrums. Now, when she’s in time-out for hitting or throwing things, she sits and wails: “You don’t love me anymore! You only love Max!”

So I tried another one of Kiki’s strategies. When Josie and I were cuddling on the couch after dinner, I said, apropos of nothing, “You know, if you picked up a million jellybeans and threw them on the floor and stomped on them, I’d still love you.” She stared at me, then giggled in pure delight. I went on, “You could lick every dog on the block, and I’d still love you.” She screamed with laughter and looked at me expectantly. “You could wipe your nose on every wall in the house, break all of Zayde’s ceramic frogs and paint Maxine’s face with purple nail polish, and I’d still love you.” Home run. Hilarity. Comedy gold. I was Madeline Kahn. And maybe it was a coincidence, but bedtime that night was smooth sailing. No battles. She came out of her bedroom once, but I steered her back in and sat with her for a minute, and she was fine.

I think Jonathan and I do push her too hard sometimes. She seems so mature in so many ways. She’s so tall for her age, and so verbal, perhaps we expect too much from her. We both have very high standards for ourselves, and we may unconsciously, unfairly apply them to her. And ego is involved: We want her to enjoy the same books, computer games, board games and movies that we do.

For your scared kid, a magic broom by the bed to sweep away nighttime fears might work. A dream catcher hanging on the headboard might promise sweet dreams. Monster spray (which, for my toiletries-loving child, means Duchess Marden rosewater facial tonic) can scare away monsters (in Josie’s case, monsters who do not like the sweet smell of expensive organic Damascene roses hand-steamed in copper kettles).

Jonathan Kopp, a Bay Area psychologist specializing in kids (and a host of the Parenting Conference on The Well, the online community that is my time-sucking virtual home in cyberspace) gives further advice. “What I often do is have kids give the worries a name, like Worry-Bully or Mr. WorryButt,” he offers. “Then I have them draw a cartoon version of the character, preferably one that makes them look simultaneously fierce and dumb. On the back of the drawing, we make a list of this cartoon bad-guy’s special powers (e.g., can keep my eyes open when I’m trying to sleep). Then we draw a picture of the child as a superhero and list his or her special powers, things that make worry get smaller or go away, like cuddling a favorite stuffed animal, taking deep breaths, thinking about happy times with Bubbe or Grandma, dancing, etc. This gives us a new basis on which to talk over time about how the battle against the Worry-Bully is going.”

Creative visualization, having the kid recall a sense memory of a special place, can help, too. I could teach Josie to think of Newport, R.I., when she’s scared, of tasting fresh-picked raspberries with Bubbe, smelling the salt air, hearing the seagulls, feeling the fur of the friendly dog at the farm.

Look, life’s scary. Even if you have no idea that Mariah Carey’s out there. We parents need to accept that.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@ forward.com.






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