STORM FEARS; AND TREATING A CHILD LIKE A BABY

By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continues to inspire readers to share their experiences about children’s fear of storms. We can’t resist sharing one more letter:

Q. When my boy was about 4 years old, I recall there was a sudden thunderstorm, so I picked him up and went to our enclosed front porch. I told him that the clouds were rolling around in the sky and when they bumped into each other they made a lot of noise, which is the thunder. When the clouds collided really hard, they made sparks, which we call lightning.

When my boy was 12, we left for vacation before sunrise. He was riding in the front seat with his dad, and I was in the back. In the distance, lightning appeared. The boy and his father were pointing out the sharp, jagged lightning strikes. At one particularly spectacular strike, my son said, “Mom, did you see that one?” I replied, “No, my eyes are closed.” “Are you afraid of lightning?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. After a moment he said, “Thanks for not making me afraid.”

A. As a parent, who could ask for a more rewarding outcome? Our children mostly tell us about our mistakes. Rarely do we receive their approval. What a nice kid, and how appreciative of you! Your success shows how important rituals and stories — even if untrue — can be.

Although even as a young child he may have seen through your fanciful explanation, the fact that you shared your story with him let him know that you were not afraid. You showed him that you understood his fear, and took him seriously enough to reassure him that you were there to protect him.

Frightening events are more disturbing when they are out of our control, and beyond our understanding. Any explanation for events like these, no matter how far-fetched, seems better than the unknown. All 4-year-olds are prone to fears _ being alone at night, loud sounds, dogs who may bite. But giving your child an explanation for his fear rather than pooh-poohing it must have been very comforting. What an example of great communication with a child at a vulnerable time! No wonder he has never forgotten it.

Q. I share custody of my 5-year-old daughter with her father. When he is at work, his mother watches her. My daughter is potty-trained and doesn’t wet the bed at my house. But her grandmother still gives my daughter a spill proof cup and puts diapers on her. I feel she is stunting my child’s progress toward independence.

On the first day of school her grandmother even wanted to follow the school bus. When I protested, she called me out in front of my daughter. And the father won’t listen to me. He just follows his mother’s orders.

Am I wrong to be annoyed? What can I do to fix this situation?
Frazzled and annoyed

A. Of course you are annoyed. You know your child has grown beyond spill proof cups and diapers. And you know that no child likes to be treated as a baby. From what you say it sounds as if the infantilizing you describe hasn’t led the child to regress. But the tension in the adult relationships in this situation could make it harder for her to stand her ground. Can you manage to control your feelings and present a calm, neutral approach to her grandmother’s behavior?

If she doesn’t feel caught between her loyalties to each of the adults, or pressured to protect one from the other, you daughter is more likely to be freed up to make her own decisions about it.

I can almost promise you then that she will resist her grandmother’s babying of her. If you and her father are not stirred up to get into the act, she will put up her own resistance. This will work better with her grandmother than just about anything else you can do.

If the child begins to show persistent, delayed problem behavior you may have to enlist a court advocate (for example, a court appointed guardian ad litem for the child) to try to intervene with the grandmother, but it would certainly be better if your daughter could handle it herself.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.