“Mommy, I’m scared!”
I think we have all heard this a few bazillion times in our parenting lives. We hug, we kiss, we hold, we nurture and all gets better quickly. But, what do you do when the fear turns into something more? Well, you do what I did: cry, get frustrated, and then get help.
Katelyn is my younger daughter. At 5 ½, she rarely was scared of much, which is why when her fear of thunderstorms turned into a life altering phobia, I knew I was dealing with something that a mere hug or distraction wouldn’t help with.
For most of her little life, when a storm came through, Katie did what any normal child does: jump into my lap, need a hug, or cover her ears when it thundered. At night, I usually had a nighttime visitor in my bed. These were all easy to deal with and pretty short lived. I even got away with reading her "Franklin and the Thunderstorm" by Paulette Bourgeois to get us through the spring storms.
But this summer, something changed.
I heard a lot of “I don’t wanna go outside mommy!” or “I’m happy to be here in the kitchen.” I couldn’t understand why. I dismissed it as being overtired or some other excuse and went on with my work around the house. Her weather interest increasingly became more obsessive as the days went on. I began to do something I am now ashamed to admit: I became annoyed with her; I had lost patience with the questions about the clouds, the weather forecast, and whether we would get a storm every five minutes.
I guess I didn’t want to see what was happening in front of me: Katelyn was developing a full-blown phobia.
I tried to shy away from the inevitable thinking I could almost make it just disappear. It was affecting my life and my older daughter’s life and I just didn’t have time for this. Looking back now, I feel like the worst mom in the world. In hindsight, I should have been more understanding, more patient, and helpful. I really believe I was acting more out of the frustration that I, her mom, who was supposed to protect her and help her, couldn’t fix this problem for her and that devastated me.
The final straw happened when we got a typical afternoon summer thunderstorm. Katelyn was in a panic. She worked herself up to the point of vomiting. I later found her with her blanket over her head as she sat on the floor of our windowless downstairs bathroom. Her hands were over her ears, and she did not budge until the storm had passed. I looked at my husband, Brian, and said, “She needs help and so do we.”
The next day I was on the phone with our pediatrician. I sadly explained how this was affecting us all. We couldn’t go anywhere and Katelyn was basically becoming a prisoner in her own home due to her fears. It was out of their hands at this point. It was time to call a child therapist. Our doctor reassured us that if we committed to the therapy, Katelyn was young enough to overcome this. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but it would eventually happen. I couldn’t call the therapist fast enough. Luckily, we got in the next day.
A lot of our first meeting with her therapist was simply making Katie feel comfortable and at ease being there. The other goal was to help her to understand why it is she was there. Both goals were made and we even learned one new thing to use when she got the “uh-oh feeling” in her belly. A huge part of therapy in a young child is teaching them coping skills and relaxation techniques to help get through the “oh-oh,” or anxiety feelings they have. Katelyn learned to breathe in through her nose and blow slowly out of her mouth to relax. To help her even more, our therapist used bubbles. The slower you breathe out, the bigger the bubble. We have now coined her relaxation breathing as “bubble breathing.” Yes, I carry a small bottle of bubbles in my purse wherever we go. (Ya gotta do what you’ve gotta do, right?)
Experts have studied this phobia and it actually has a name: Astraphobia, also known as astrapophobia, brontophobia, keraunophobia, or tonitrophobia. According to Wikipedia, it is an abnormal fear of thunder and lightning, a type of specific phobia. It is a treatable phobia that both humans and animals can develop, which can lead to several problems for the person who has the phobia, including fear of leaving the house, which is the point we were getting at with Katelyn.
It has been three weeks since we began therapy, and I am noticing Katelyn is making baby steps toward a more normal life again. We all practice our “bubble breathing” together each day as a family; I want her to see that we all can benefit from stopping to relax a bit. I explain things to her and give her only facts when she asks about the weather. Another rule is she can only ask me once. I will tell her when there is a reason to worry; it is about trusting someone right now.
The other day, she said, "I did it mommy! I went outside with the clouds and I was OK! I trusted you and I was OK!” I was so proud of her!
Earlier this week, she stayed with a babysitter at our house for a few hours and was completely calm even as the rain poured down. Our biggest moment: I took the girls outside and said, “Let’s go play in God’s free sprinkler!”
Katie was a bit apprehensive at first, but guess what? I finally got to see her dancing in the rain.