THE HEART OF PARENTING • BY EMORY LUCE BALDWIN
I’m worried about my eight-year-old son. He has never been a fearful child, but recently he has become very anxious about going to school. He had a pretty bad stomach virus earlier this winter and he threw up in front of everybody in the lunchroom. This was terribly embarrassing for him, and now, he is very afraid of throwing up again—especially at school. The doctor says he’s fine, but I think my son is getting himself so worked up that he is actually making himself feel sick. When this happens, he goes to the school nurse who calls me at work to come and get him. Not long after we get home, he doesn’t feel sick anymore and of course, he doesn’t throw up. This has been happening more and more often, and I don’t know what to do.
“Worried” on Wildwood
I can imagine that your son’s experience of sudden and unexpected illness—especially in front of his friends and teachers—was a very stressful experience for him, both physically and emotionally.
Now, however, your son is experiencing misery of another kind. He desperately wants to avoid repeating his vomiting experience at school, and has put himself on “high alert” to notice any signs of feeling sick. His sense of caution has expanded into a sense of fear that creates even more problems for him.
With your help and support, though, he can learn to calm his thinking and quiet his tummy again.
One way to help your son regain his ability to calm himself, is to pay attention to the way you talk to him when he is alarmed. When kids are worried, grownups automatically say things like, Nothing is wrong! You’re fine! Most of the time, this helps. But when children are overcome with anxiety or panic, being told Nothing is wrong isn’t helpful at all. At times like these, kids know darn well that something is very wrong and they need help to get through it this time and deal with it better next time.
What your son can learn is that his brain is a good, smart brain, but sometimes brains get confused and send the wrong signal. This time, his brain has been confused by worried thinking about throwing up and is sending him the mistaken message, Watch out! You are probably about to throw up! You better get out of here!
The message that will help your son is Even though you feel afraid, I know you are okay. This can be expressed to your son by saying things such as:
- You aren’t going crazy, you are okay, and you’ll get through this.
- You don’t feel good right now, but this feeling will pass in just a little while.
- I am willing to help you get through this—we can breathe slowly and relax together.
Fortunately, your son can learn to recognize that the feeling of being afraid of throwing up doesn’t always mean throwing up. In other words, by learning how to feel more comfortable with discomfort, worry or fear about anything—whether it is throwing up, teasing from classmates, or thunderstorms—your son will learn to become more confident, more resilient, and more courageous about many things, including the fear of getting sick again in public.
If you need more help, contact your child’s pediatrician or a therapist experienced in working with children’s fears. For more information, I also recommend the book, “Freeing Your Child From Anxiety” by Tamar Chansky.
Have a parenting question for Emory? Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org and include “Dear Emory” in the subject line.