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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Children's irrational fears

When I was five, I started catching the school bus with the other kids from my block. There were two notable characters at that bus stop most mornings, other than the kids going to school and the odd parent; one was Rastus, my terrible piano teacher's brown kelpie, and the other was Garry.

I guess Garry was around seven or eight, in chronological years, but it was obvious even to us five-year-olds that there was something terribly wrong with him. He couldn't talk, except in gutteral grunts. He didn't go to school like the rest of us and never seemed to be in the company of a parent. Worst of all, he never wore any clothes. He ran around the bus stop stark naked, even on the chilliest winter mornings, grunting and laughing as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

To me, Garry seemed more animal than child. This is important in the context of what happened.

I loved going to school, but both Rastus and Garry made me deeply uncomfortable. They both seemed uncared for and out of control, though I couldn't have put that into those words at that age; I recognised that this was somehow wrong.  I didn't ever mention those feelings to my mother, who would escort me up the street to the bus stop and then usually leave me there with the other kids and whichever mothers were having a friendly gossip today. It was a very safe community in those days.

Why didn't I mention that I felt uncomfortable? I had a great vocabulary, even then. I guess I had always prided myself on being resourceful. I wasn't a whiney child. I probably figured that this was just one of those things I had to deal with on my own.

Have you got a resourceful child?  Ask them what bothers them now and then. They may be carrying something.

So there I was at the bus stop one day, my mother having left to go home, when something truly dreadful happened- something that the most resourceful child on this earth couldn't be expected to cope with.

Right in front of my eyes, right there almost within arm's reach, Rastus was run over by the school bus. Not once; twice. The driver must have failed to put his foot on the brake when he stopped; the bus rolled back over an unsuspecting Rastus, and then pulled forward again and crushed him a second time. I can still see it like it was yesterday. I can still see that poor dog's eyes as he struggled to breathe.

As some older kids ran to tell Mrs Ghastly that her poor neglected dog was lying dying on the road, as others shouted the news to the bus driver with ghoulish excitement, I got on the bus like a little robot and said nothing. Nobody would have known I was traumatised just by looking at me. The other mothers were too busy fussing with their own kids to think of me.

The next morning, probably sensing something not quite right in my aura, my mother stayed with me till the bus came. I have no idea whether someone had told her about Rastus- I certainly didn't. The bus pulled in, and I disintegrated into screaming hysterics. I refused to get on the bus, screamed that I didn't want to go to school, clung to my mother crying... she had never seen anything like it from me. I was such an unflappable child. She was mystified.

Have you ever been mystified by a child's seemingly irrational fear?

Now, not every child who disintegrates into hysterics has necessarily seen something as awful as that; I suppose it would be completely normal for any child to get hysterical simply as a result of witnessing fatal trauma, but in my case the problem was not so much what I'd seen as what my five-year-old mind had constructed from the data.  Children construct their ideas of cause and effect from a completely different perspective from adults. What seems ridiculous to us can seem completely logical to a child.

I can still remember exactly what I was thinking that second morning.  My train of thought went like this:

Rastus was unaccompanied, non-verbal and out of control.

The school bus had killed him right in front of me.

Garry was unaccompanied, non-verbal and out of control.

I had been standing there at that bus stop in a ball of terror. When the bus arrived, I fully expected Garry to appear, stand on the road behind the wheel and...

Would you call that an irrational fear?

My poor mother. I expect she wondered till the day she died what had caused her perfect baby to explode that day. I never told her. I was the sort to keep things to myself, long before I hit adolescence.

If the 54-year-old Aunt Annie could have spoken to her mother that day, what would she have advised?

First, I'd say listen to your child and take the irrational fear seriously.  Jollying your child out of it, ridiculing them or telling them to pull themselves together will not work and may seriously compromise their trust in you. 

They want the light left on? Leave the light on. The electricity bill won't kill you.

They think they see a spider or scary eyes on the ceiling? Get up there and have a look. Use a flashlight, a ladder, whatever. Get them up there with you, if they'll come. Demystify wherever you can. Don't expect that to fix it at once, though- fear is not always quickly responsive to evidence.

There's something scary under the bed? Move the bed. Take everything out from under it. Tuck the bedclothes up so they can see under the bed when they get in.

Yes, I think my mother should have taken me home that day. That's what Aunt Annie would say to her. If I'd been taken home, over the course of the day I might have found a way to share what was bothering me.

Once you've taken the fear seriously, it's time to try to let it out.  If gentle questions don't work, provide some art materials.  I had a child in my preschool class who had had the unit next door burn down in the middle of the night.  At least I had an idea of where the trauma had started- I provided red, black and yellow paint and paper and glue and let her get it out of her system.  This is what she made:

Can you see the houses? They all seem to be burning. Art can be a wonderful medium to express the unspeakable.

Once you get the slightest handle on what seems to be bothering a fearful child, find some story books that deal with that subject in an appropriate way.  (For example- monsters under the bed? 'The Kiss Soldier' is just wonderful.) 

Keep talking about it, keep trying to move the child's perspective little by little.  If the problem is at bedtime, be the first to bring it up. Be pro-active. I had a two-year-old child in daycare who simply wouldn't sleep in one part of the room because he was convinced there were spiders on the ceiling; I remembered never to put his bed in that part of the room, and read him stories like 'Aaaauuuggghh! Spider!', and showed him spiders in the yard while talking about which ones were nasty and which ones were helpful to us.

Fear is a terrible feeling. Have you ever been truly afraid? Think back to that time.  You don't want to laugh at your child or discount his feelings when he's experiencing that dreadful squeeze of the guts inside.  Be respectful, take it seriously.  It IS serious to him.


  1. Well done Candy, I knew you could do it. I drawed a picture of the ceiling and explained that no one can get in that there are no windows or doors, except the manhole, which you need a ladder to get up into and that we do not have a ladder in the house so there is no way anyone could get up there.. She drawed me a picture of two eyes in the ceiling, I then explained that the little holes she is looking thru were reflecting on the insulation and making that appearance.. She slept all night and actually slept in. Her comment to me this morning with a little laugh and a smile was you were right mum I can see that its just the insulation now... Yeah happy outcome :-)

  2. candy - this blog is has given me lots of useful tips to use at work and im sure at home now with my little boy - im sure these issues will arise as he gets older...thank you and i look forward to more of your stories. kristen xo

  3. So pleased you had a great result, Deb! And Kristen- is that you?! Congratulations on the bub! and I'm so glad you're enjoying the blog.


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