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Small Child, Big Fears

One mom's story of her son's powerful phobias, and their affect on the family that loves him

Writer: Michaela Searfoorce

I have a confession to make. When my son James is away I pull sheets of bubble wrap out of my secret hiding place. I let my two toddlers stomp all over them, squealing with delight with every pop. The first few times we did it were surprisingly unsettling. For me. James will be 12 soon, so “no popping bubble wrap” has been a house rule for more than a decade. I also felt guilty, like I was getting away with something. I wondered if James could hear the racket from the tennis courts, two blocks away. I hoped not, for everyone’s sake.

James was born with a rare chromosome defect, which quickly led to a landside of other diagnoses. Aside from numerous medical issues he was eventually labeled with PDD-NOS, ADD, Sensory Integration Dysfunction, MR/DD, and some serious anxiety issues. All of this took a lot of adjusting to, but, surprisingly, more stressful than the cognitive and physical deficits, more troubling than the fleeting attention span, even more difficult to understand than the medical issues has been the intense fear.

At just a few weeks old, James cried every time someone coughed or sneezed too loudly. When he turned 1 he cried from the time “Happy Birthday” was sung until the sticky cake was wiped from his hands. James was petrified to be within sight of swings, let alone sit on one. He was afraid of movie theaters, the vacuum cleaner, the lawn mower, and to dip his toes in a wading pool.

I’m grateful to report that many of these fears have disappeared or eased considerably over the years. In fact, I recently blogged about the “Top Ten Phobias James Has Overcome,” in order to remind myself how much progress has been made. However, there are still a number of phobias that appear at the most inopportune times (kind of like our Fed Ex delivery guy who only shows up when I’m in my pajamas and completely unprepared for visitors).

James remains absolutely terrified of popping sounds, which extends to any object that could potentially “pop.” He is equally afraid of the blood pressure cuff, any kind of needles, and a variety of tools in the dentist’s office, including the reclining chair. James is upset by emotional music, including songs like “Happy Birthday.” He’s also not a fan of loud noise or cheering, fire alarms, being left alone (as in being the last one to exit the car), water with waves, amusement park rides, or people in costume.

These fears may not seem significant at first until one considers how many of our activities are limited by them. An IHOP last year had a balloon animal maker for the kids wandering the restaurant—now all IHOPs in New Jersey are suspect (apparently the ones in New York are still safe). The Fourth of July (and the weeks leading up to it) is a challenge; fireworks, even on television, are cause for hiding under a blanket in the bedroom, sobbing. James has run into traffic on Broadway just to get away from a group of teens throwing snaps on the ground. Playgrounds, parties, amusement parks, concerts, certain movies, field trips, the beach, even packages that may contain bubble wrap are also on the long list of things that pose challenges, especially when you consider the two younger children who are dying to experience everything their big brother is hiding from.

In general my husband and I are not anxious people, nor are our other children. A few weeks ago our 21-month old rode his bike down some stairs and came up with a bloody lip and a goose egg. In between his sobs I realized he was actually crying, “I just want to go back on my bike.” A kiss and wet paper towel later he was off.  At the beach last month my 3 yr old spent more hours than I care to recall in the ocean, boogie boarding with waves crashing over her head. James was happy to stay on the sand and labeled the same waves as “dangerous” and “violent.”

While it’s not useful (or nice) to compare James to his younger siblings, if I’m being completely honest, their adventurousness makes it more difficult to empathize with James. The urge to criticize or scold my 5’1″ preteen when he is screaming “Stop squeezing that balloon! Put it down now!” at a terrified toddler on the playground is overwhelming, not that it does any good.

Trying to live our lives while accommodating—but not enabling—such severe anxiety has inspired many different approaches. These tactics are often unplanned, not very pretty and not always effective. But, sometimes after years of resistance, James suddenly tries something new. Coincidence? Perhaps. In any case, here are some of the more common ways we handle things in our family:

Lie like a rug. “No, there will definitely not be balloons at this IHOP (I hope I hope I hope). Now drop it.”

Don’t ask, tell. “After the Ferris wheel, we’re headed to dinner.” If we ask, he’ll say no, so why ask?

Show no fear (of fear). Not unlike dogs, my kids are very adept at sensing my own anxiety. Which might be why my younger two get excited when they find a dead roach in the hallway. Seriously though, if James senses that I’m worried, he thinks he has a reason to be nervous as well. He doesn’t grasp that my anxiety is of his anxiety.

Do not prepare. There are obviously exceptions to this rule (moving to a new house, new baby, new school, etc.) but in general we don’t prep James for the “scary stuff.” If he knows there will be a fireworks show that evening, that’s just more time for his anxiety to fester (and more times we have to discuss said event).

Ignore it. If James looks worried but hasn’t said anything, I usually pretend not to notice. Sometimes he needs to work through it on his own. If I ask, What’s wrong, honey? I’m basically just asking for it.

Compromise when possible. We’re not monsters—we won’t make James play “pop a balloon” on the boardwalk but we are going to all try the Ferris wheel.

Avoid your problems. Yes, we take the long way around the balloon games on the boardwalk, and ask for any blood pressure machines to be moved upon entering an examination room.

Good ole-fashioned bribery. “If you go up to your knees in the water you can earn one arcade game on the boardwalk. Up to your waist, 2 games. Up to your chest, 3 games!” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If he elects to pass on video games, we know he’s pretty serious about not confronting his fear at the moment.

Use younger kids as examples. It’s hard to prove how scary water balloons are when your baby brother and sister are gleefully running around splashing each other with them.

Be matter-of-fact. Man, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve said, “It’s not a big deal. Stop crying and do what the dentist is asking you. Now.”

Resort to threats. It’s not graceful, or pretty, and I try to avoid it, but sometimes it’s effective for the moment. Hissing “Stop screaming now or we’re not leaving this park until bedtime” is usually a plea out of desperation, but it often works (or at least buys me a few minutes to get it together).

Let him choose. As James gets older, we are starting to let him make his own decisions when possible. The approaches above are definitely not fail-proof, so sometimes we need to agree to disagree. If James elects to sit in the car rather than suffer through IHOP pancakes because the balloon lady is too close for comfort, that’s his choice. If James decides he will try the small water slide to avoid choosing the big water slide, we make him think that’s his choice, too.

While writing this article I asked James what frightened him. He instantly rattled off, “Ghosts, bats, witches, and vampires.” It doesn’t occur to him to put the words “afraid,” or “scared,” or “mind-blowingly terrified” together with ordinary things like blood pressure cuffs or loud noises. James will go parasailing but won’t stand up to his knees in the ocean. He’ll ride a snowmobile but can’t sit through the birthday song. He doesn’t notice screeching tires or loud horns as he crosses Broadway without looking both ways but goes completely berserk if a balloon pops 50 yards away. But after years of panic attacks, meltdowns and sincere terror, James now loves going to the movies, he enjoys a dip in the pool (up to his neck) and the swings are his favorite part of any playground. And just this summer, he decided that water balloons are okay. His justification? “They don’t pop, they splash.”

Can you cure your anxious child? Maybe, maybe not. But with a little effort (and a lot of patience) we are still living our lives to the fullest with one. As long as there are no balloons around.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.