My 7 year old son has had phobic episodes (hysteria, crying) regarding school attendance and going to movies. He is afraid to leave me, even to play at a friend’s or go to a birthday party. He has nightmares regularly, sometimes displays tics, and wets the bed more often than not. He wants to know where each family member is at all times, and what time they’ll return if going out. He used to be a very confident, sociable and bold child. We wonder what has happened to our son, and whether we’ll ever see his confidence restored.
You’re right to wonder what has happened to your son. His symptoms suggest he is under considerable stress. You need to do some detective work to find out what has happened or what he thinks might happen. It could be anything from a scary movie, to seeing another child hurt, to a dream he has taken literally, to hearing about abducted children on the news, to actually being hurt by bullies or a babysitter or a friend’s parents. When you’re in a nice, relaxed situation with your son (e.g. after you read him a story,) ask him if he’s worried about something, and what he thinks might happen if he’s separated from you. Also ask him about his scary dreams, and see whether they have any clue to what is wrong.
Your son’s wanting to know where family members are suggests he’s afraid of losing someone or of someone else rather than himself being hurt. This could be because someone he knows has had a relative die. Or because he saw this on TV. Or because he dreamed it. Are you separated or divorced? It’s common for a child who has one parent leave to fear the other parent leaving too.
You can’t completely discount the possibility that your child has actually been abused. It is common for sexual abusers, for example, to threaten to harm the child’s parents if the child discloses. Watch and see if there is anyone in particular who he wants to avoid. Don’t assume he’s been abused, however. Even though sexual abuse is much more common than we once thought, it is not nearly as common as fears related to the media.
When you find out what the problem is, you can take steps to remedy it. Your first step is to listen. If he worries about you dying, for example, listen very attentively to what he is worried about, then reassure him that the vast majority of people don’t die until they’re old. Take whatever he says very seriously, and don’t scoff at his fears. Reassurance with actual statistics can help. The media are so full of murders and violence that children often get a distorted idea of what the risks actually are. Of course, if your son has had a real trauma (bullying or abuse), his feelings from that need to be addressed and the situation needs to be stopped. If your son appears to not to know what is bothering him, or to know but is reluctant to talk about it, you may need to take him to a professional counsellor who can help him express his concerns.
For the time being, you need to coddle your son a little. Spend more time with him, reassure him,
Phone him to let him know you and everyone else are okay when he’s away from you. Develop a soothing bedtime routine, if you don’t already have one, and get him a night light. However, don’t allow your child to distort your life so that it’s really abnormal. He still needs to go to school, and you still need to attend your regular activities. Otherwise he can become chronically fearful. With time and a normal life, your son’s anxiety will become less, especially as you reassure him of the realities of the situation, and any real dangers are addressed.