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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Five-year-old can learn to control his fear

By John Rosemond

Q. My 5-year-old son was so nervous on the first day of kindergarten that he threw up shortly after getting there. Since then, he's been crying every morning about having to ride the bus that many of his classmates also ride. He cries on the way to the bus stop, cries while he's waiting, and I have to almost push him on it when it arrives. I have to admit that at least one morning a week I've given in and driven him to school. Each time I do so, he promises me that if I'll take him "just one more time," he'll willingly ride the bus from then on. Needless to say, his promises are empty.

When I ask him what he's afraid of, he can't tell me, and his teacher says he's fine by the time he gets to school. A counselor friend of mine says my son's manipulating me. What do you think?

A. The idea that children manipulate their parents has been vastly overblown. It implies a mental maturity and an ability to analyze human behavior that 5-year-old children do not possess and won't possess for, at best, several years to come. No, he's genuinely upset.

Your son is really scared, but there are two kinds of really scared. In the first, the child is afraid of an event that has happened or might well happen. Your son's fear would fall into this category if, for example, the bus had been struck by a truck and turned on its side the first morning he rode it. In this case, his fear would be reality-based and would merit some protective action on your part.

The second kind of really scared involves either (a) a fear of something that has never happened and has a slim-to-none chance of ever happening or (b) a vague, undefined feeling of fear that the child can't put words to (i.e., "I'm just afraid!").

Based on your description, I'm reasonably certain your son's fear falls under (b). He's obviously not afraid of school itself, or the teacher would be seeing evidence of that. If he hasn't already, the bus driver will probably tell you your son calms down by the time the bus reaches the next stop.

I'm sure you've said everything you can possibly say to your son about his fear. You've done what you can to help solve the problem, now it's his turn.

In fact, your son is the only person who can solve this problem, and believe me, an otherwise emotionally healthy 5-year-old is capable of bringing a fear of this sort under control.

Tell your son that he simply must ride the bus every morning. You'll continue to walk him to the bus stop (which you should do regardless) and wait with him until the bus arrives, but you will not drive him to school again, period. Assure him that it's OK to cry, and give him full permission to do so. Tell him that sometimes crying helps people get over fears of this sort. Don't promise him anything special if he doesn't cry, and don't make a big deal of it the first morning he is successful at "sucking it up." On that auspicious day, just tell him you're proud of him and let that be it. After all, getting on the bus without tears is no big deal.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions at www.rosemond.com.