Tuesday 22 May 2018

Dear David Coleman: How can I help my child's fear of prosthetic limbs?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My daughter is seven. She recently saw another child, who had her legs amputated and had steel prosthetics, at a summer camp. Her reaction was utter fear and she shook from head to toe and was very upset. The teacher handled the situation really well and the other child was unaware of my daughter's reaction, as my daughter was removed and my husband was called. My husband hugged and reassured her. She calmed down but told him, "I don't want to talk about it again". I don't want to make her worse, but feel we need to do something?

David replies: I think you are correct that you do need to do something more for your daughter. There are a couple of things that your daughter needs to have in place, to prepare her for any future contact she might have with children or adults with amputations, prosthetic limbs or any other physical disabilities.

On the one hand it sounds like your daughter was very distressed by seeing another child with no legs, or with prosthetics. She needs support with this distress.

Whatever it was about that experience, for her, is relevant to trying to help her to cope with any future upset she might experience.

Then there is the other person, who might witness her reaction. Your daughter needs to grow an awareness of how she might come across to someone else and how her reaction may affect another child.

As you say, in this instance, your daughter's reaction was "handled" by the teacher such that she won't have caused offence, or distress to the other child.

In other circumstances, the fear or upset that she shows might actually be quite hurtful for another child, or an adult.

Looking at your daughter's needs first, however, it would be useful for you to think back to see if you can find any other situation where your daughter showed equivalent distress, to see if she ever had a personally negative experience with a person with a visible disability?

Could she have watched anything on TV, or YouTube, that might have frightened her, that was either directly related to, or associated with someone with no limbs, or with metal prosthetics?

Understanding what provoked a fear reaction would be helpful. If she has never seen a person with a physical disability before, or any experience with someone with a disability wasn't negative in some way, you might have expected more curiosity than fear on this occasion.

I think you need to talk with her more about the boy or girl that she saw and try to explore with her, what it was about the child that frightened her.

Helping her to express her feelings about the other child, and their missing legs, or their prosthetics, will help her to understand and process it.

You may have to guess at her feelings on her behalf, which is why it will help if you can recall any previous, potential trigger experiences she has had. Her fear might be about having no legs herself, it might be about the metal prosthetic, or her sensitivity to, and sympathy with, any kind of pain that she imagines the person may have felt.

You want to be able to empathise with your daughter, such that she knows it is OK to have her feelings, and that there is nothing wrong with being scared. Your goal is to help her to vent this fear, by talking about it. You may be nervous that this will exacerbate it, but my expectation is that validating her fear will actually reduce it.

If you can help her to understand what it was about that child that terrified her, then you can put in place some strategies for helping her in the future.

Some coping strategies might be to find an adult straight away, if she is feeling scared, or to use positive self-talk to remind herself that the person is still a person,, just like her.

It might also help to let her know that even if she is frightened, it might be upsetting or embarrassing for the other person too if she is very demonstrative in expressing those feelings.

My sense is that this issue she has will probably require bits of coaching, from you, in both understanding the experience of someone with a disability and in guiding her, practically, about how she reacts.

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