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A Frightened Child

Last week I took my 5-year-old to see a therapist.

I had thought he’d have at least until his twenties before requiring mental health services, and that it would be a result of my lackluster parenting.

But apparently when it comes to anxiety, he’s an overachiever.

He’s always been a little anxious, the one child who hates amusement parks, preferring Skee-Ball over even the slowest kiddie rides. He loathes every single part of bedtime, insisting that I leave the lights on until he falls asleep while he clutches his security blanket that he treats like an actual person.

And I’d worry that hell was about to freeze over if he didn’t cry at school drop-off.

To us, that just meant he was a little anxious, something that we'd seen in lots of kids, none of whom required therapy. So we’d oblige his 400 repeat questions, his request for four night-lights, and his desire to stand on the sidelines while his sisters enjoyed another ride on the Ferris wheel.

But then he started refusing to go outside, staring at the clouds in the sky. And we knew something was wrong.

I still remember the exact point in time that he started to be afraid of the weather, an innocent trip to a local bible school with our sitter that ended in complete terror of thunderstorms. Apparently the power went out due to a heavy storm, and that combined with the tornado siren sent him completely over the edge.

We didn’t think too much about it when he arrived home, happily nursing a gigantic ice cream cone, our babysitter’s smart attempt to lighten the frightful evening.

But when he started to go into a completely irrational panic with any sort of thunderstorm, we realized that this was a big problem.

He actually outgrew his indoor fear of storms, but when summer came around along with more storms, he was scared again, but this time only when he was outside. This seemed like an improvement until he started having near panic attacks when any sort of gray cloud appeared in the sky, even if the sun still happened to be shining.

But then it started affecting his sisters. Once, it required an emergency turnaround from the highly anticipated pool visit because of an innocent passing cloud. The girls were visibly upset with him, and he was devastatingly apologetic after the fact. But after that, we took the recommendation of a friend (and therapist) to get him some help. We figured that it couldn’t hurt if it would help him enjoy being outside again, especially since he was starting school soon. Plus, it was starting to affect his sleep, with hourly early morning visits, his fear quelled only by getting in bed with us.

After a lengthy discussion with that same friend, we sought out a cognitive behavioral therapist, mostly because this type of approach has a fantastic track record with anxiety of all kinds. However, we quickly learned that finding a therapist for a young child, let alone a cognitive behavioral therapist, was pretty challenging. We finally found someone who was willing to take a young child, but she didn’t take our insurance.

Instead of spending more time and energy searching for someone from an insurance directory who may or may not connect with our son, we decided to spend the money on the therapist who came highly recommended, with the hope that we wouldn’t have to dip into his college fund to pay for her services.

We knew we had made the right decision when we told him that we would be taking him to someone who could help him and his eyes brightened. “I don’t want to be afraid of the rain anymore, mommy” he told me. And every day, he asked me when we’d be going to see “The Weather Lady” as he called her, staring at the family calendar in our kitchen.

For the intake session, I shared his personal history, as well as the presenting issues. I was provided with some strategies to get behind what he was actually fearful of and the reasoning behind some of his behaviors, all of which were amazingly helpful.

As it turns out, he’s afraid of tornadoes, being electrocuted, and, as I pulled out of him through overwhelming tears, us being killed. And I also learned, as he explained to me, that he sees “pictures in his mind,” imaginary scary scenarios that flash in his head when he sees a gray cloud or hears thunder.

And suddenly, it all made sense. Why I was both frustrated and upset.

Because like him, I do the same thing. I’ve just learned to control it over the years.

He’s only been to The Weather Lady together with me once and then alone for half of a session. And while I have no idea how long he’ll be seeing her and what the results will be, I do know that it’s probably one of the best parenting decisions I’ve made in a long time.

Because in helping him now, I’m arming him with the tools that I know will be helpful for him later on. If that’s not parenting, I’m not sure what is.

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