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What to do when a child has irrational fears

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Q: My 5-year-old daughter has started displaying an (irrational) fear of abandonment. For example, if I return the grocery cart to the store after buckling her and her 2-year-old brother into their seats, she will cry hysterically, tearful that I will not return to the car parked 10 feet away. If I leave the room to use the bathroom, she must follow me, despite me reassuring her that I’ll be right back. She otherwise sleeps well on her own, separates easily at school, and eagerly attends birthday parties and sleepovers.

I’ve never once left her alone or failed to pick her up. Where is this stemming from, and how can we work together to help her overcome this anxiety? Her father suffers from anxiety and depression, so I’m wondering whether this is showing up in her already?

A: Thanks for writing in; this is a tough one. It can be confusing when our children start to display seemingly irrational fears out of nowhere, so let’s try to figure this out.

You’ve listed where she’s not panicked, which is important. Critical separation points such as bedtime and school seem to be fine for her, and even birthday parties and sleepovers are going well. I am glad you mentioned that her father has anxiety and depression, because there is a genetic component to anxiety running in families. That may make you feel as if the cards are stacked against your daughter, but remember: Environmental factors are also important, so don’t “blame” her father for her fears. However, is her father’s anxiety important to consider? Yes. Should you diagnose her as anxious? Maybe, maybe not, but it is something to watch for as you move forward, and it’s something to bring up to her pediatrician.

I also have an idea for what you can do before you start finding tools and getting diagnoses for your daughter: Ask her what is going on.

She is young, but 5-year-olds can tell you about their thoughts and feelings. When she is dysregulated is not the time to ask her about what’s wrong and why she’s freaking out. Crying hysterically is a sign that her prefrontal cortex is not online, so the best thing you can do in those moments is to stay calm and help her cool down. In a moment when you’re both feeling regulated, use “noticing” language: “I have noticed that when I go to the bathroom, you like to follow me, and you feel pretty scared if you aren’t with me. Tell me more about that.” Then wait to see what she says. Don’t be afraid to stay quiet after asking her a question; this may be the first time you have asked her why she is afraid, so let her think. This will also require some keen listening on your part. Remember that your logical mind doesn’t match hers. She may tell you: “Remember that time we were in that parking lot and you left me in the cart? That was scary!” You may think it was no big deal, but don’t say that. Remember: Her young brain cannot rationalize. Her emotions are real, and her fears can get stuck.

I am hoping this will help you gain information that will lead you to answers. But no matter what, it is best to create a plan for when you go to the store or bathroom. There is nothing wrong with bringing her with you when you put the cart away, and you can also bring her into the bathroom. These aren’t actual crises; they are inconveniences.

When you feel ready, you can create a small plan with your daughter. For example, say: “How about this? I am going to use the potty, and I’m going to sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ the whole time. You sing with me, then I’ll be back!” We are looking for micro-solutions to help her build up courage. Don’t try to rip off the bandage quickly, because doing so will make your daughter panic more. Try small solutions, one by one.

I suggest you pick up Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s book “The Whole-Brain Child,” and check out the website heysigmund.com. This book is a great primer for understanding your daughter’s mind, and Hey Sigmund is full of excellent tips and ways to support your daughter.

Although we don’t want to cause your daughter undue panic, we also don’t want this anxiety to take root. You have to help her develop bravery, so learning more about her mind and anxiety will aid you both. It feels a little strange that your daughter only has this anxiety with you, so please ask and listen, listen, listen to what she has to say. Good luck.

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