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Children and Families #5: Fears and Phobias

Children’s Fears

Peter Goldenthal

Brian Johnson was a few days short of his eleventh birthday when his parents first brought him to my office. A bright, funny, and engaging child, Brian had a lot going for him: friends, a remarkable verbal gift, loving parents. He also had something that interfered with his enjoying these gifts: a dramatic fear of thunderstorms. Many children have the urge to jump into their parents’ bed or to hide under their own covers when lighting lights up the sky and thunder shakes the window panes. Most often, parents and children manage these short-lived fears without professional involvement. Brian’s fears were more pervasive. He became frightened not just during a storm, but when the sky had that ominous a-storm-is-coming look. He began to watch the weather channel each morning before school and often balked at the idea of going to school when a storm was predicted, even if the sky was clear early in the morning. To be fair, Brian’s fear was not totally groundless. His cousin had received a bad jolt several years earlier when lighting struck an electric line near his home at just the moment he was turning on the television. But, as Brian’s parents pointed out to him many times, there was a difference between taking reasonable precautions during a thunderstorm, such as not standing under a tree in the middle of a field, and being afraid to go outdoors whenever there was a possibility of rain.

After several meetings, I began to feel that there was more to Brian’s worry about thunderstorms than the storms themselves. I intuited that he was perhaps mostly afraid of fear itself. Indeed, it turned out that Brian wasn’t afraid only of being hurt in a storm, he was afraid of his own reaction to a storm. Gradually, it became clear that what he feared most was being in class when a storm began, getting upset, perhaps becoming tearful, and as a result feeling very embarrassed in front of his classmates. Once we could talk openly about the possibility of this happening, his fears about it diminished. I made a relaxation tape for Brian to listen to at bedtime and anytime he was anxious about the weather. Six weeks fter we made this tape together, Brian was on a bus trip with his class. On the way home, they ran into bad weather whihc culmiated in a dramatic thunderstorm. although Brian had his relaxation tape, walkman and headphones with him, he didn’t need to use them. Just knowing they were there was enough.

Amanda was about five-years-old when I saw her with her parents for equally distressing, but very different, fears. Her fear, not unusual in childhood, was that monsters would come into her room in the middle of the night. This was several years before Monsters, Inc. and its furry, and lovable monster with Billy Crystal’s voice. Her parents to reassure her that there were no monsters lurking in the house, that they had never seen a monster, and that there was no such thing as a monster. This went nowhere.

Amanda insisted that there were monsters, and that one of her parents sleep with her all night to protect her. This did keep the monsters at bay but did little to ensure either marital intimacy or restful sleep for Jim and Sue, Amanda’s parents. They hoped that I might be able to suggest a new solution, one that would help everybody in their family sleep well.

Because Amanda was so young, I had to rely even more on intuition than I did with Brian. I also was very careful not to challenge the monsters’ existence. My job was to help her be safe from monsters, not to convince her that they were mere figments of her imagination. I asked her to describe her room to me in great detail. I asked where her bed was, where the windows were, and what kinds of toys were in her room. Like many young children, Amanda had an extensive collection of Beanie Babies. She also had a large plush lion based on the Lion King movie, and a very large plush bear, almost as big as she. I asked her about these two animals in particular. Were they strong? Were they brave? Were they afraid of monsters? Did she think they could protect her from monsters? In fact, they were strong and brave, not afraid of monsters and, Amanda thought, capable of protecting her from monsters. I asked Amanda to think about positioning them so that the bear was guarding the foot of her bed and the lion was guarding the entrance to her room. Amanda was to instruct these two guardians each might at bedtime that their responsibility was to guard against monsters. When I saw Amanda the next week, she reported that her guardians had done their job well: she slept soundly and without fears.

The two cases I’ve just described appear very different on the surface, and in many ways they are different. The two fearful children were at very different stages of development; their fears were very different; and of course their abilities to talk about the fears were different as well. What they had in common, and the reason I chose to write about them this month, is that the solution to their problems required careful listening and a willingness to trust one’s intuition.

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