What’s a normal fear, and when does a child need professional help?
My four-year-old son was crying hysterically and I felt so helpless. He was convinced I had touched some dirt on the floor and then made his sandwich without washing my hands. I tried to tell him I hadn’t touched the dirt and I did have clean hands and he wasn’t going to get sick. I hugged him and rocked him and said anything I could think of to soothe him, but he kept up his hysterical crying.
I wanted to just dismiss it as the overreaction of an overtired child but I couldn’t. I could see the fear in his face and I knew exactly how he felt. I’d felt like that too.
I’ve always been an anxious person. I am from a family of anxious people. For many years I suffered anxiety related to food poisoning. I became near-obsessive about cleanliness in the kitchen and washing my hands. It sounds so stupid, but I found myself thinking about food poisoning every time I ate. I would often finish a meal and then make myself sick with fear that the food would make me sick. It went on for years.
I’d believed I was over the worst of it, but when my son totally lost it that night, I became terrified that I’d unwittingly passed my anxiety on to him. Perhaps he’d seen how often I washed my hands when I was preparing food. Perhaps I’d told him too many times to wash his hands before a meal. Perhaps he’d inherited my family’s anxious nature.
We all want our kids to inherit our strengths. When we see our weaknesses in them, it’s almost unbearable.
My son never became quite as upset at dinnertime again. But since then, he's always been very careful about washing his hands. Sometimes, if we're out, he'll refuse to eat until he can wash his hands somewhere. Or, if he touches the sole of his shoe during a meal, he'll want to wash his hands before continuing. It's not too extreme, but it's not exactly normal for a four-year-old either.
Occasionally, he's become very distressed about other things. One time, he started asking questions about death, and before I knew it, he was crying hysterically again - this time, at the thought that one day, when he was very old and very sick, he might die. Nothing I could say would calm him down. I have learnt to steer clear of the topic of death, even if he's the one who brings it up.
After reading an article in The Courier Mail about four-year-olds developing clinical anxiety, I decided to ring the researcher quoted in the article, Dr Vanessa Cobham from the University of Queensland. She was quick to tell me that it's "very unusual" for a four-year-old to be diagnosed with clinical anxiety. She managed to ease my fears about my son.