Tuesday 12 December 2017

Ask the expert: My four-year old daughter is now fearful of everyday situations

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

The clinical psychologist and parenting expert advises on how to deal with anxiety in a young child and also how to tackle a confrontational and rude 17-year-old son.

Question: Over the last few months my four-year-old has become fearful of a number of things, especially car journeys in the dark, or to unfamiliar destinations. I don't want to make a big issue of it but am not sure how I am to deal with her fears and help her to overcome them. She used to be very outgoing and even participated in a weekly dance class, which she now refuses to go to. Every day she is worrying about something (unnecessarily in my mind) but I can't figure out where it came from and what to say/do to help her get rid of these fears.

David replies: There are times when it feels, to me, like there must be swathes of anxiety in the country. For several weeks now queries coming in to me have had a common theme of anxiety and/or insecurity, especially in small children.

You are wise to try to figure out what, if any, incident or experience that your daughter had, which might have contributed to her current anxiety. It does seem that her worries are quite associated with journeys.

What isn't clear is whether it is the car itself that is anxiety-provoking, or the destination at the end of the journey that provokes the anxiety.

What does seem clear is that your daughter really likes predictability. That is a very common desire among young children. When they know what to expect they, generally, are more at ease about approaching the situation or experience.

In truth, of course, we are all a bit like that. Most of us will experience more anxiety about going somewhere when we don't know the people, the social expectations, or the social rules that we will be expected to follow.

So the novelty and uncertainty of going somewhere new or unknown may explain some of your daughter's nervousness. However, it doesn't explain her change of heart with regard to the dance class.

I wonder were there any changes in the personnel teaching the class or among the girls attending it?

Was there an evening when you left her there for any length of time, that she may have suddenly missed you or needed you for anything, and you were not available to her?

Helping her with the anxieties, irrespective of the cause, will still centre (at her age) around your ability to be warm, soothing and understanding of her fears, without trying to rationally persuade her not to be frightened.

Lots of parents (this may not include you) will, as a first response to a child's anxiety, tell them "don't be silly, there's nothing to be scared of".

This, or similar, responses will, unintentionally, deny the child their experience of being scared and will make it more likely that they try to block down the feeling such that it gets stuck and lingers around until another opportunity comes around to express it.

If, as a habit, we keep trying to simply distract children from their fears, or suggest to them that there is no need to be afraid, we can leave them with quite a build-up of anxiety.

That stored anxiety can, actually, then leak out in lots more general situations than the original situation that they were frightened of.

So, contrary to what you might expect, it really helps children when we recognise not just the fact of their anxiety but the intensity of it. We need to empathise with their worries (even if we think they are irrational or unnecessary).

Our perspective on the issue is less important than their perspective.

If we can show our children that we fully understand how scared they are, then, later on, we can suggest some reassurance, solutions, or rational explanations to them.

But, until we empathise, our reassurances sound hollow, and tend to be ignored. So, if you want to reassure your daughter that she will be safe in the car, no matter the time of day, or the destination, spend a few minutes first acknowledging how much she dislikes the journey because she feels nervous.

Let her know that it is okay to be frightened, but that even when we are nervous, it is important to still do some of the things that frighten us, because that is how we learn to overcome our fears.

My 17-year-old son is critical and confrontational.  Is outright rudeness and disrespect normal?

Question: I have a 17-year-old son who I find extremely difficult. Everything is a row or a challenge. He's constantly criticising, cursing, breaking things and just generally putting us down. Everything we do is wrong. He doesn't seem happy unless there's confrontation. He has two younger sisters but everything seems to revolve around him such that I have little time to give to the girls. I may be part of the problem; I don't have much patience with him, but he is such hard going. Is this outright rudeness and disrespect normal?

David replies: In short, no. Outright rudeness and disrespect is not normal, even for teenagers. The majority of teenagers are respectful and polite, most of the time, albeit very self-centred and self-absorbed.

The other way to judge if your son's behaviour is normal, even for him, is to think about how he treats other people, outside your family. Does he speak to teachers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, shopkeepers or his friends in the manner in which he speaks to you?

Does he generate conflict and confrontation with everyone else?

Even though you don't allude to it here, I'm guessing he doesn't. I'd imagine that his wrath, his criticism and his disrespect is saved for you, his dad and his sisters.

If that is indeed the case, then it suggests that the issue is not just about your son and his rudeness and disrespect, but is a wider, family issue about the dynamic between you all.

So, before you go looking at your son's behaviour, take a long, hard and open look at your own behaviour. You mention that you may be part of the problem, as you don't have much patience. It also 'takes two to tango' in any row.

Your reaction to him is as important, in understanding the nature of the conflict at home, as his initial comments or behaviour. So, it is quite likely that you are correct that you are part of the problem.

While that may seem critical of you, or unfair, I don't intend it to be. Because the real benefit of acknowledging our own role in creating and maintaining problems in our relationships with our children is that it also allows us to realise that we have a very influential role in solving the problems.

We can certainly start to dissect the issues between you and your son by acknowledging that his behaviour and attitude are not acceptable.

This then is the starting point for you in trying to correct his behaviour.

However, your goal, I think, should be to keep reminding him that his behaviour is not okay and that you will not tolerate it and that you will not engage with him while he is acting and speaking so disrespectfully.

The way in which you do this is important though. If you simply ignore him, without responding at all to him, it is likely to infuriate him further and lead to an escalation of his rudeness and disrespect.

If you react angrily, or critically towards him, appearing aggressive or dismissive in your tone of voice you are also likely to infuriate him and escalate the situation.

So, you have to find a calm, neutral, but firm tone where you acknowledge that you have heard what he said, but that you aren't willing to respond to the issue until he speaks to you politely, or treats you respectfully.

By responding to him in this way, you also role model good, respectful, communication. You are showing him that you are willing to listen, to understand and to help him when he treats you well.

By only engaging with him when both you and he are calmer, you will avoid a huge amount of the conflict.

There may be some other, long-standing sense of grievance that your son carries about the family. That may also be worth exploring, through something like family therapy.

But in the first instance, you need to try to get your communication back to something civil and respectful. Then you may be able to explore some of the factors that have led to the current conflict.

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