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help - 3 year old's new phobia getting an alarming grip

(20 Posts)

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BlownLightBulb Mon 23-Nov-15 09:44:08

Have NC for this, as the content is quite identifying if you are another parent at my son's pre-school/childminder/toddler group.

My generally happy, confident 3 year old DS has developed a violent phobia of hurting other children accidentally, and it's getting worse and worse to the extent that he cried himself to sleep last night saying 'I'm afraid I'm going to hurt people' and 'I don't like hurting people'. He gets absolutely hysterical about it, and it comes up out of the blue during very happy times, and is affecting his behaviour - he begs me to cut his nails in case he accidentally scratches someone, and in any situation where he is around other children, he keeps a sharp eye out in case anyone comes near him, and afterwards often says he has hurt someone (when there's no evidence at all he did).

He cried to the point of gagging and losing his breath on both of two brief taxi rides in a city we were visiting at the weekend, before and after what seemed to be a very happy visit to a child's activity (despite him coming up to me at intervals and worrying he was going to hurt someone). Ditto in a dentist's waiting room last week with his lovely childminder, who is equally baffled (he wasn't being seen, they were waiting for someone else). But it also happens at home, in bed, at the childminder's (whom he adores, and where he has been since he was 8 months).

As far as I can gather, it all started a fortnight ago when he accidentally bumped or scratched another child at his pre-school when open his lunchbox, but the other child didn't even notice, according to the teachers. I thought at first it was a phase that would pass, but it's been getting steadily worse, to the point where it is affecting every aspect of his life and sapping his confidence. Usually, as I said, he's very confident and sociable, though he also likes his own space. Only child, in case that's important. He still rough-and-tumbles with me and his father.

I've tried everything I can think of - any ideas on what is going on and how DH and I might best respond, and help his childminder and pre-school staff respond? His childminder, who is experienced and wonderful, is baffled, but thinks it might be a delayed reaction to starting pre-school in September (he goes two days a week 9-3 and settled in immediately).

Apologies for length. Any advice very welcome.

BlownLightBulb Mon 23-Nov-15 10:15:33


MidnightVelvetthe4th Mon 23-Nov-15 10:47:03

Oh the poor little sausage!

How did the staff deal with the lunchbox incident, could they have come on a bit strong with him?

NoSquirrels Mon 23-Nov-15 10:58:11

I think role-play is probably your best bet here.

Line up some teddies for a picnic. Practise opening lunch boxes and then "hurting" teddy. Teddy is either a) very cross, but it's all better after an apology or b) unbothered because it was just an accident.

Rinse and repeat in other situations?

Three is when you'r just figuring out your relationship to other people, and that actions have consequences. Sounds like he's just shocked himself somehow with this realisation.

Are preschool sure that's all there was to the incident? Did you get the report on it, or did they tell your childminder? Sometimes worth hearing it from the horses' mouth, so to speak. Was it a scratch i.e. visible, or just a bump?

BlownLightBulb Mon 23-Nov-15 11:49:45

Thanks, guys. Midnight, the staff tell me they didn't even see the lunchbox incident, because it wasn't an incident, they only saw him getting very upset afterwards - they say the other child didn't even notice. It had crossed my mind, though, that he might have interpreted something they said or did strongly - he is, and has always been, a sensitive, deep-thinking, old-before-his-years type.

The snag is that I don't do pick-ups or drop-offs, so his father (who does drop offs) and his childminder (who picks him up) have been relaying things. He's always seemed very happy there, though they're not the most communicative place - ie, other than an occasional note, they don't fill in a diary or anything. I kept asking at the beginning if he was doing OK, and they said he was happy, confident and brimming over with indiscreet anecdotes about his home life.

Squirrels, I will try that, thank you. We have talked it through endlessly, and talked about it again when I trod heavily on an unfortunate fellow-parent's toe in a museum at the weekend, how I apologised, and he smiled and said it was fine, but DS just keeps going back to the refrain of 'I don't like hurting people' and 'I'm afraid I'm going to hurt people'.

No, apparently, no visible marks or any indication the child even noticed. His childminder was there on another occasion at a toddler group when he burst into tears and said he had run over a little girl's foot (another mindee of hers) with a toy car, but childminder said the other child hadn't noticed at all, if it had even happened. Ditto another occasion at the childminder's when he and another child were helping to bring in the shopping, and he says he bumped the other child with a bag.

Fugghetaboutit Mon 23-Nov-15 12:01:31

Poor thing, then role play idea sounds great. I'm sure it'll pass soon. I wonder if someone was harsh with him too after the lunchbox thingg

VicWillia Mon 23-Nov-15 12:09:56

Poor little man. My boy is going through something similar, unrelated subject but the same feelings of anxiety. You just feel helpless.

The role play might help.

Is he into Thomas the Tank Engine? If so, on YouTube, theres videos under 'thomas the tank accidents happen' its a song called Accidents Happen and it features Thomas trains crashing into eachother, then righting themselves and being fine. My ds loves these and they might help your ds see that sometimes people bump into eachother but they are fine.

ValiantMouse Mon 23-Nov-15 12:22:13

No chance someone has hurt him, is there?

NoSquirrels Mon 23-Nov-15 12:49:07

Similar to Valiant, I was just going to ask you how he reacts when he himself is hurt? Does he get very upset about it, or shrug it off?

If it's a sudden unexplained fear - i.e. he is not usually prone to these sort of reactions, then there probably is more to it than just the lunchbox thing. But that could be anything - he could have inadvertently heard something he's worried by, or watched something on TV, or observed something happening with someone else. And you do say in your thread title that it's a "new phobia" which could mean he's prone to these sorts of things before, although not as severe?

It is really really tough if you are depending on other people's versions of things, which we have to do when they're in childcare. He does sound super-anxious if he's hyper-ventilating in the car or bed for no reason, so role play and play therapy I think is the way to go.

When he tells you he thinks he's going to hurt someone, do you talk about the fear then, or do you sort of try to jolly him out of it?

BeccaMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 23-Nov-15 13:03:56

Hi all - we've going to pop this over to parenting at the OPs request.

GenevaMaybe Mon 23-Nov-15 13:07:49

It sounds like a kind of harm OCD which I would get professional help for. It might be very mild, hopefully it's a short-lived phase but it's always worth a bit of expert advice flowers

Y1questions Mon 23-Nov-15 13:46:11

My DS is five so at a different stage. He is very anxious about not being 'naughty' (despite us never talking in terms of naughtiness). Eg the other day he was absolutely distraught because another child had been 'very mean' to him. Eventually it turned out that the other child had merely said to him 'yesterday you didn't let me play with you'. Which, according to DS, wasn't true. Later we chatted about it and DS recognised that I, and his teachers, would usually believe him, so he needn't worry about being seen as naughty when he hadn't been, just because some other child had said so. But he does still worry that other children may believe this child rather than him, and it makes him very anxious that his friends would think he was mean.
I have a hunch that it may be related to the recent anti bullying week. 'You're a bully' is about the worst thing you could say to DS. In fact, you could veritably bully him by going around telling him and others that he was a bully.
So I was wondering if your child's nursery school did something re anti bullying week and focuses on not hurting people, and your DS took it very much to heart? And he is anxious to please and therefore afraid of hurting someone?
I don't know any answers. In general I'd say
- don't just react to his behaviour but try to respond to his emotions.
- acknowledge his emotions as real, even if they are 'unfounded'
- don't tell him that his feelings are 'wrong' or tell him not to feel what he feels. Instead tell him it's ok to feel as he feels. And focus on what he can do when he feels like that.

I also agree with the suggestions of role playing with the focus on it being ok if we hurt someone/make a mistake. He may have been told during anti bullying week that we mustn't hurt anyone - fair enough - but you may need to get him to understand that it's ok to make mistakes, everybody does. Even if that mistake is 'hurting someone'.

BlownLightBulb Mon 23-Nov-15 14:29:16

Thanks, everyone. It's very supporting to have other people's input, I'm so worried about it, and yes, it makes it all worse that I feel it's happening at one remove. I think I'm going to call the pre=-school staff and try to get more context. And will definitely look up the Thomas youtube things.

Squirrels, he's actually pretty stoical about being hurt - doesn't turn a hair at vaccinations and the like, or if I or his dad accidentally bump him or something. I have a hunch that being deliberately hurt by another child might be a very different affair, but to the best of my knowledge, it hasn't really come up yet - he doesn't have siblings, but he's pretty rough-and-tumble with me and his dad. And interestingly, that hasn't changed at all. He's still happily play-fighting etc with us. He is pretty sensitive, though, and surprisingly attuned to other people's emotions. He thinks about things, and sometimes needs to have the endings of books made OK for him, or says he doesn't want to read something again because it's scary (Rumpelstiltskin was one recently). But entirely within the normal range, I'd have said.

No, he's never had any such phobias before - I only meant that this is brand-new and seems to be expressing itself in phobia terms - his childminder said that at a toddler music class last week, where normally he would jump down on a cushion, he was exaggeratedly looking behind and around him in case he trod on someone.

Valiant, I don't think so - it would seem strange for having been hurt himself to be recast as a fear of hurting someone else.

Geneva, where would be your first port of call for seeking professional help? Yes, I've been thinking OCD too.

GenevaMaybe Mon 23-Nov-15 15:19:26

You would have to see GP for a referral. Do you have private health insurance? Just as it will be quicker

BlownLightBulb Mon 23-Nov-15 21:21:26

It was even worse today. His experienced, competent childminder, who is very fond of him, thought he was so sad and strange when she picked him up that she asked me to come and get him. While I was talking to her in her hall, he played perfectly cheerfully with the older children, but has been intermittently very sad all evening, and now the refrain has become not 'I don't like hurting other people', but 'I don't want to go to [preschool] or [childminder] ever again.'

She and DH talked in depth to preschool staff, who say they've been shadowing him carefully, can't think of anything at all that triggered it originally, or any circumstances which trigger the sadness these days. He says himself no one, staff or child, has hurt him or spoken nastily to him.

We've done role play with soft toys, listening endlessly to his fears, baked biscuits for him to bring in tomorrow, done favourite activities - nothing seems to alleviate it. If anything it's getting more severe, because he now doesn't want to leave home at all.

And, even if I tnought it was a good idea, i can't take tomorrow off, and either can DH.

NoSquirrels Tue 24-Nov-15 12:04:41

I'm sorry, Blown - very stressful for you all. Poor little thing. It's almost impossible for them to articulate where these fears come from at that age, and sometimes guesswork is all there is.

To the GP for a refer all, I agree. If it's getting more severe, not lessening, and you have done all the "right" things, which it sounds you have, then you need an expert.

Wtfmummy Tue 24-Nov-15 12:10:05

No real advice from me I'm afraid but didn't want to read and not just say I really hope this is just a phase that your little guy gets through quickly. It must be so distressing for you to see him so upset. Poor wee soul.

blushingmare Tue 24-Nov-15 22:45:06

Your poor DS and you! Sounds like he had a bit of a shock somehow. I don't have any real advice, other than to say my 3.5yo is a bit similar with "stealing" things and I know I caused the problem blush We were in a toy shop and she was fiddling with various things as they do. When got home I discovered she had put one of the toys in the pushchair without me realising.

I wasn't cross ( obviously), but wanted her to know that wasn't a good thing to do so had a semi serious talk about how taking things that aren't ours is really not good etc. She was mortified and insisted we took it right back and say sorry straight away! Anyway, we have had a couple of incidents since then where we have mistakenly gone off with something (once a book from a playgroup, once a toy from a friend's house and once a paper napkin from a cafe....) - this has sparked a complete freak out totally like how you describe your DS.

She is also extremely sensitive and really takes thing to heart. I think at this age they really can react in unexpected ways when they think they might be in "trouble". Actually I don't even know if it is thinking they're in trouble - DD has never really been properly "told off", so wouldn't really know what being "in trouble" is. Maybe it's just the thought of them having done the "wrong thing".

Fortunately for us we don't steal stuff too often so are not faced with this very much wink. But I can imagine in your situation you encounter it far more, which must be really hard to deal with so I feel for you. I have found it really upsetting and been quite shocked at the extreme reaction from DD on these occasions. So sympathies and shared experience, but no advice I'm afraid!

BlownLightBulb Wed 25-Nov-15 11:47:20

Blushing, that does sound quite similar. Thanks for sharing. It's grim, isn't it?

His pre-school and childminder are now keeping a diary of anything that upsets him - yesterday at pre-school it was that he had brushed his foot against X's coat (but X hadn't noticed at all, far been hurt.)

And this morning, walking him to his childminder, we encountered her, and another local childminder and children, on their way back from the school run, and he went rigid and wanted to go another way (when normally he's incredibly social and confident.) We stood talking to them for a moment, before we went on our way (he begged to go the long way round to childminder's house, whereas usually if we met her on the street on the way to her house, he would just go with her happily), and as we left them he was crying and saying he had hurt one of the other children, who had been standing on the opposite side of a double pushchair, nowhere near DS.

And then we met another mother and toddler we know, and he also said afterwards he had hurt that toddler, when he had stood feet away from her. And then inconsolable when I dropped him, despite the fact that he's been at this childminder since he was eight months and until this week would tell me he wanted to stay longer than his usual hours.

Whatever started this, it has clearly now taken on a life of its own. And he wants to stay at home all the time, and keep away from any other child.

I will look into a GP referral. Thank to all who have posted.

Nutgirl Wed 25-Nov-15 15:57:13

Poor you and poor DS. I agree with the other poster who said it sounds like OCD. My nephew, then aged 12 (so yes a lot older than your DS) had a sudden onset of OCD at a family gathering. It was so extreme and so at odds with his usual behaviour that none of us really knew what was happening, he just became very withdrawn and very odd. My poor sister didn't know what was going on either and was really distressed and didn't know how to help him. But after a few days of extreme behaviour with him threatening to run away and hurt himself because he didn't deserve any love or to have anything nice, he was finally seen by a psychiatric professional (via GP referral) and was given treatment (medication / anti-depressants) and through CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) has learnt to live with and manage the condition. He is now 17 and doing his A levels - he is also on the autistic spectrum.

Not saying this is what your DS has, as at 3 he would be very young but his symptoms sound very similar to those my nephew suffered.

Really you all get some help too, must be awful for you flowers.

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