How can I help calm my son's fears?

Smart love - November 2006


The Piepers

How can I help calm my son's fears? Q: My 5-year-old has become very fearful. He worries about terrorist attacks, that my husband or I will get in an accident, that he will be kidnapped or that his dog will die. He is in a new school (kindergarten) and seems OK there, although he doesn't seem to have made many friends. He wanted to go to the kindergarten his friends go to, but we moved out of that district, and this new school is better. My husband is impatient with our son and feels that he is acting like a sissy. I find his behavior irritating, but would like to understand it better. Can you help? M.G., Evanston

A: We believe your son's fears are caused by angry feelings over the move and change of schools. Young children have a very unrealistic belief in the power of their anger-they think that the strength of the anger they feel is an indication of the effect it will have on the outside world. If your son is angry at you for forcing him to leave his friends, he may experience this anger as so powerful that he is worried about your safety. He may also worry that you will retaliate for his destructive wishes, which explains his concerns for his own safety and for his dog. Tell him that you imagine that he may have a lot of upset feelings about the move. Explain that you may not have paid enough attention to his sadness at leaving his friends, his neighborhood and his school behind. Encourage him to talk about those feelings and make it possible for him to visit his old neighborhood and friends. You might also explain that these angry feelings won't cause harm to come to those he is angry with. And please tell your husband that your son is not a "sissy"-children's fears can be overwhelming to them.

What do I do when my daughter is teased? Q: My 8-year-old daughter had a hare lip, which was surgically corrected, but she is left with a speech defect. Her speech therapist feels that eventually she will have normal speech. In the meantime, though, other children tease her and imitate her to the point that she refuses to talk in class. Now she doesn't want to go to school. She is a very bright child and has always enjoyed school. I don't think she should be in a special education class, but I don't know how to help her regain her confidence. I have tried telling her that she should ignore the other children and then they will stop, but she says they hurt her feelings and she can't ignore them. Please advise. R.T., Oak Park

A: In situations where children with disabilities are teased, we have found that it is often very effective to have teachers lead discussions with the aim of raising sensitivity about disabilities and how to respond to those who have them. One teacher got the class to think about how much courage it took for a boy with a withered arm to come to class and try to keep up with the children with normal builds. She had everyone in the class put one arm behind his or her back and try to go through the school day that way. She found that after this exercise, the children stopped teasing the boy and went out of their way to help him. If your daughter's teacher would be willing to do some sensitivity training, your daughter may begin to have a more positive school experience.

How do I preparemy baby for house guests? Q: We are having a family reunion and loads of family are going to be staying with us or coming to the house. My 7-month-old is showing signs of stranger anxiety, and I am worried that she will be upset by all the new faces. Some of my husband's relatives have never seen the baby. I know they will want to pick her up, but I am not sure she will like that. I don't want to hurt our guests' feelings, but it won't be good if the baby melts down either. How can we keep everyone happy? L.H., Skokie

A: You are correct in assuming that a deluge of strange relatives may be overwhelming. The best solution is for you or your husband to make sure that you are near her-even holding her if possible. Let her greet the new arrivals from the safety of your arms or your lap. If well-meaning relatives want to pick your baby up, tell them that she is in a normal phase of being a little hesitant with people she doesn't know well. Suggest that the relatives talk to her or play peek-a-boo without actually holding her. In that way, both your relatives and your daughter will have a mutually enjoyable experience.

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. are co-authors of the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline that Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (for additional Smart Love resources visit The Piepers also wrote Addicted to Unhappiness, which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives. The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.


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