DS2(4) has become terrified of loads of things. What can we do to help him?

(27 Posts)
McKayz Fri 03-May-13 17:36:00

It started off with spiders and has so far progessed to all bugs, except butterflies, castles, snakes and the woods.

If he sees a spider or bug then his eyes go wide open, he screams and tries to get away. This has led to a couple of moments where he has almost ended up in the road and almost off a cliff. I don't think he thinks, he just runs.

We've recently been on holiday and he didn't want to go into a castle which had previously never been a problem. We live near a forestry commission and have got a yearly pass as we went a lot last year. Now suddenly he is scared of going for a walk in the woods.

He completely freaked out at a runner bean plant last week but with the help of his nursery teacher we worked out that there was a little cobweb on the pot it was in.

What can we do to help him? Most of the time he is a very happy little boy and it is horrible seeing him so scared.

He's 4 and goes to nursery every afternoon. His teachers say he is very happy and gets on well with everyone.

Thanks.

working9while5 Mon 06-May-13 11:47:53

Ended up in the road and almost off a cliff sounds like time for professional help even if just in book format, walk or no walk.

You can validate his distress without reinforcing excessive and dangerous behaviour. Cuddling, reassuring, long explanations and helping him avoid insects even if you are still going where they may be would be unhelpful. Not saying you are doing this but I would be very cautious about letting these extreme panic tantrums go without a serious strategy to dampen their extremes. This is fine and somewhat normal if getting a bit less so if it causes potentially dangerous escape behaviour but if it is handled poorly this could become something very hard for you all.

Wellthen Mon 06-May-13 09:25:15

I agree with ballstoit. I watched an episode of Tiny Tearaways where Dr Byron did this. The little girl was terrified of all animals to the point of hysterics. She told the parents to stop picking her up or taking her away from the animals. Instead the stood still holding her hand saying 'its ok, they are nothing to be afraid of'

Children watch your reactions all the time. When you smile at something or laugh they know it is ok. When they are frightened, we as adults respond with fear and anxiety but the anxiety comes from our distressed child not the source of the fear. They cant tell the difference. By scooping them up and cuddling them you confirm their fears.

No one is suggesting you ignore his distress. But stay calm and explain that everything is ok.

mrsgboring Mon 06-May-13 08:58:00

I totally understand people's reluctance to ignore behaviour like this and the desperate desire to reassure a terrified child but as other posters have said that makes it much much worse. (we also had this issue with unacceptable behaviour at preschool which school insisted on talking through with my son instead of ignoring as I advised them to. This so drastically didn't work as a strategy for the school that they called in an educational psychologist. The week before the ed psych's visit they finally decided to try ignoring and the problem was fixed in a day, leaving them quite sheepish when she came and saw what a non problem it had become....)

The way I dealt with ignoring DS2's fears in a way that I could also cope with was to keep up a stream of light chatter about the thing scaring him (dogs was a huge one for us). I used a bright cheery verging on demented tone, eg "ooo look at the lovely dog isn't he fluffy?? Do you think the owner has to brush him with a special brush? He's got a ball. I think he's going to the park. Etc etc". As well as keeping the emotional tone bright, it gave Ds2 more things that he would habitually think about than "is he scary?" "will he bite me?".

McKayz Mon 06-May-13 07:14:27

He doesn't need me to ignore him while he's screaming and trying to run away. I can't see that making him better.

We had a long walk in the woods Saturday despite him being scared when we first set off. So we must be doing something right.

working9while5 Mon 06-May-13 07:10:17

If I make it worse so be it? That is about you, not him. Anxiety disorders seriously curtail lives and children's development.

There is a great book called Parenting your anxious child with mindfulness and acceptance which explains how your child's fear is all consuming and they need you to show them a better way. Their fearful behaviour is an opening gambit in which they invite you into this fear. It is your job to show them it is not the terrifying thing they imagine. You don't necessarily have to ignore him but I would seek advice on how not to make it worse. It's easy to say that flippantly but these fears are already mushrooming which is a sign you are in his anxiety dance and maintaining his fear. You need to be the choreographer, not his dance partner. He needs that.

McKayz Mon 06-May-13 07:00:38

I am positive he is terrified.

We aren't avoiding anything he is scared of either. But I still refuse to ignore him while he is screaming in fear. If I make it worse then so be it. But I won't do that to him.

LittleMissLucy Sun 05-May-13 21:11:29

Sorry Ballstoit - that's actually a lot clearer and does make sense. I was tired when I read this one (in the US) and wasn't paying attention.

CognitiveOverload Sun 05-May-13 20:52:15

I agree, by reassuring and avoiding the thing that scares him...you are teaching him there is a valid reason to be fearful. Keep neutral.

CognitiveOverload Sun 05-May-13 20:50:48

Possibly he had a bad experience. Desensitisation can work. Talk to him about his fears without judging and try to work through them. Offer rewards for this. Are you sure he is terrified and there is not another reason?

ballstoit Sun 05-May-13 20:47:45

Littlemisslucy, perhaps you should read properly, I mentioned I'd sought advice when DD1 started having panicky reactions. They were to lorries and buses going past us when we were walking on the pavement. I had been picking her up each time, reassuring her that she was okay and started walking the long way to local shops to avoid being near the main road with her.

I was advised to ignore the irrational reaction, hold her hand not pick her up, talk quietly and calmly about something else and then give her huge praise if she didn't scream or cry etc. She'd been having increasingly panicky reactions for about 6 weeks,then I followed the advice (feeling very doubtful it would work). She got a little worse for a couple of days, then within a week didn't react at all. That was a couple of years ago.

She's a bright, secure little girl who gets lots of positive attention, and activities done with her. I praise good, helpful, behaviour and, as far as possible, ignore behaviour I don't want and praise the minute it stops. If that means some people view me as cruel, meh. My daughter skips happily into new situations, makes realistic risk assessments to keep herself safe and comes to me or other adults caring for her when she needs help, so I feel quite happy that I made the right choice for her.

MERLYPUSS Sun 05-May-13 09:28:40

I was once told that phobias start from, not the thing itself, but a learned reaction from an outsider - for example he may be looking at a spider and someone dropped a book on their foot and screamed. They associate the scream with the spider at that age.
Can you not tell him that spiders are super heros as they eat flies which spread germs. Beetles do the same as they munch up wood to feed the plants. Bees make honey etc. Castles used to have knights in them like Mike the Knight.
I agree with not avoiding the forrest, just try to work out why the forrest is such a baddie and saying we might see XYZ there but they wont hurt you as mummy is here. If it's something errational like dragons in the woods tell him they only exist in story books.
Mine were scared of wolves so i told them they were extinct in Uk (like dinosaurs) but we could see them in the zoo.

reluctantlyCatholic Sun 05-May-13 07:32:31

Reassurance sadly does increase fear though, as does avoidance. Both allow buy in to the idea that the thing is truly fearful.

I wouldn't deal with it by ignoring it either though. Exposure is helpful... a funny book about a friendly spiders, then maybe a toy. You could very slowly and gently work him up to looking at a scary plastic spider. My ds was scared of water and we did it this way. Lots of being calm but don't avoid things or give him reassurances it isn't scary because to him it is.

BabiesAreLikeBuses Sun 05-May-13 07:19:29

4 year old brains can't cope with long explanations?? That's not always true or helpful. One of the reasons my ds had 'unreasonable fears' is because of his overactive imagination. 3.5/4 he was afraid of bed saying 'i can't go to sleep cos i keep vanishing to different places', he didn't understand that when he dreamed he didn't actually leave the bed! I can't see how tantrum theory would've cured this, i used explanations 'you're not actually vanishing because when you wake you're always here in bed, it's just your brain tricking you' and i explained how dreams work...at the end of a couple of weeks he repeated the explanation back perfectly and wasn't scared any more. I'd worry about the attachment of someone who disciplined for this!

LittleMissLucy Sat 04-May-13 22:23:56

Yes I don't know if the poster who suggested it actually has children tbh. Doesn't sound like the kind of thing any real parent would suggest.

McKayz Sat 04-May-13 19:48:29

I'm sorry but I refuse to ignore him while he is quite clearly terrified and needs to be reassured that he is ok.

LittleMissLucy Sat 04-May-13 19:25:27

I really dislike that phrase "ignoring unreasonable behavior" with regards this subject - what is unreasonable to an adult may seem perfectly reasonable to a child, especially when it comes to fears you can't discipline that out of them. And most importantly, you can't "dismiss" them - that is an emotionally detached and cold response which isn't appropriate here at all. In fact I find it hard to see when that is an appropriate response except only in the face of a major tantrum.

ballstoit Sat 04-May-13 10:00:40

I can see why you wouldn't, and I wouldn't have done for DD1 either. I was lucky to be at uni when she started with these 'fears' and could ask advice from the child behaviour psychology specialist. She explained the fears start as children feel out of control, and there are new things they can't process. By paying attention to the 'terrified' behaviour, reassuring lots, talking and explaining parents often reinforce that there is something to be scared of.

Your DS is so absorbed by these unreasonable fears, that he's actually doing things that he should be frightened of such as running into the road.

As the adult, who has experience and knowledge of the world, we need to be clear to children that some fears are unwarranted. It's very similar to the 2 year old tantrums, which are also caused by a lack of understanding of the world and other people. I'm not talking smacking and shouting, when I say discipline, I mean being clear on the boundaries and ignoring the unreasonable behaviour. Stay calm, and praise when he's reacting in an acceptable way.

McKayz Sat 04-May-13 07:35:41

I don't think I agree with discipline and time outs for a terrified little boy. I can't see it helping him in anyway at all.

CheeryCherry Sat 04-May-13 07:00:37

My DD had a phase like this, scared of the wind, heavy rain, spiders, the sea etc, all became overwhelmingly fearful for her. I used to treat her fears calmly and talk about her issues as practically as I could. The book 'the highly sensitive person' by Elaine Aron is worth a read too.

ballstoit Sat 04-May-13 06:41:55

I think that this phase has to be treated as a phase of unwanted behaviour, like the tantrum phase. Give it as little attention as possible, and give firm boundaries when he does dangerous things as a result.

Dont start avoiding the woods, it gives your ds too much power (which in itself is frightening for him) and reinforces the fear. 4 year old brains cant cope with long explanations, so just stick with a phrase such as 'trees are safe, hold my hand if you want to'. If he refuses to walk, play outside etc, then just stand still and tell him he needs to do as he's asked or have time out (or whatever you normally do for discipline), if he does something dangerous then discipline him (if you dont, it reinforces that a fly is so scary that he can put himself in danger to get away). And give lots of praise every time he reacts calmly and sensibly.

EugenesAxe Sat 04-May-13 06:26:45

I used to be scared of wolves (bizarrely, DS1 also seems to have a bit of an obsession with them), and I got over it when my DM drew a comical picture of what I described as bothering me. So I would say if you can find any way of making things funny that might help. You can't really be rational about phobias, but if you could go into why he's scared of them and see if there's an opening for talking it out, that might help.

I read recently, for example, that spiders eat more than the weight of all the people on earth in insects, every year. That gets my vote!

McKayz Sat 04-May-13 06:12:56

Thanks.

DS1 never went through anything like this so it's all new.

LittleMissLucy Sat 04-May-13 03:08:34

It is normal and its especially difficult for highly imaginative children. You can only reassure him. I found with my own DCs I have to be super relaxed around bees etc and say "they're more interested in the flowers than you, don't swat at them and you'll be fine" etc. And I've had to repeat it, a lot. We'll all get there eventually.

BabiesAreLikeBuses Fri 03-May-13 22:26:44

All 4 year olds go through fear phases, mine became scared of dreams and therefore sleep. I talked him through it repeatedly explaining why he didnt need to be scared and explained that i wasnt scared because of (rational reason)

Startail Fri 03-May-13 19:49:40

He'll grow out of it.

DD1 suddenly decide she was scared of driving where there were no street lights. Not very helpful since nowhere near our house has street lights. We choose this house deliberately - see username.

I think it's part of gradually realising that the world isn't a safe place and that you play a part in keeping yourself safe. DD also got much better at not just running off around 3.5

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