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Facing Trauma and Kid Fears 

by Tara Lindis

With the weather beginning to get warm, my sister and I took my 3 ½ year old son, Fyo, and 11 month old daughter, Lyv, on their first trip to Brighton Beach. We haven't spent a lot of time around the ocean, and with my son's favorite thing on any playground being the sand pit, what could be better than an afternoon on a beach? My sister, her fiance and I packed tote bags with snacks and sunscreen and headed down on the subway to meet our friends who lived a block off the Brighton Beach boardwalk. 

On the beach, we played chase and we said we were building a castle, but really we just moved sand around. My sister's fiance buried my son up to his arms in sand and then let my son bury him entirely in sand. The weather was just warm enough to go in the water; I asked my son if he wanted to go in the ocean. He shook his head no. He stood looking at the ocean, watched his soon-to-be uncle dive in the waves and swim, and ran back towards me. A little bit later, I held his hand and walked with him up to where the waves wash in. We stood on the wet sand, and let the water cover our feet, then our ankles. When the water reached my son's knees, he ran back to where we had the blanket spread out. 

In the meantime, a friend of our friend's, Mark, had noticed my son's reticence to go in the water. He asked if my son wanted to learn to swim; my son shook his head no. Fyo went back to playing in the sand. 

Mark turned to me and said, “You should get him in the water. It's just warm enough. He'll really like it.” 

I said I'd leave it up to Fyo, that Fyo needed to get into the water on his terms. Earlier this year, in our unusually warm spring, another parent and I had taken my son's coop preschool to Prospect Park, where our children played around the Audubon Center & Boathouse. Fyo had brought his watering can and was dipping it in the duck pond with his friend, when Fyo suddenly fell head first into the duck pond. Thankfully, Erin, the art teacher, was sitting directly behind him. Also thankfully, Erin had spent her summers in high school as a life guard. Without blinking an eye and while remaining completely calm, she reached over and grabbed Fyo out of the water by his ankle. Holding him upside down with his shirt down by his arms and his belly exposed, he looked like a white bellied fish she had just caught. Fyo was just as wet as the day he was born. Like many newborns, once he was right side up, there was a moment of silence as he breathed in, then a long wail as he rushed towards me. 

I wasn't far from the edge of the duck pond that day. I saw him go under water, I shouted while Erin remained completely calm, then I ran towards him and held him tight when he crashed into me; by then he was already hysterical with fright. 

When I tell Mark about Fyo's fall into the duck pond, Mark proceeds to tell me how children learn to fear, because fear itself isn't natural. He tells me that children see the response of their parents and then gauge their reaction by their parents' response. I have heard this argument before. I do agree that many children do learn to be scared or cautious because they see their parents' concern for their safety and hear it in their tone of voice. I have noticed that often overly cautious parents have at least one of their children who are just as cautious as they are, but I've also seen overly cautious children come from gregarious and dare-devil parents. 

Yet I disagree with the idea that fear itself isn't natural and it is a learned behavior. I disagree with the idea that all fears are equal. Most people, when faced with the threat of losing their life, feel scared. It's why we have adrenaline that allows us to act or to run when we find ourselves face to face with a tiger. And, feeling scared when faced with the prospect of losing one's life in such a circumstance is a valid fear. 

I have no doubt my son's fear of drowning is legitimate. For a three-year-old, suddenly falling head first into a dark murky duck pond, not knowing how to swim, and being just as suddenly pulled out upside down qualifies as a trauma. Under water, he felt what most people feel when experiencing trauma; helpless and a loss of control. While he has no problem hopping into the bathtub and spending the entire day there, he now stays far away from the edge of duck ponds – even when they've been recently cleaned and we can see the shallow bottom. When we were in Central Park two weeks ago with some friends, and Fyo saw his friend lean over the edge and drop leaves into the duck pond, he cried hysterically, shouted at his friend that it wasn't safe, and pulled her back from the edge by her dress. Three times he did this. His seemingly exaggerated reaction to his friend's normal playful action makes sense given his own unexpected fall into the water. 

I tried to explain to Mark, that when his art teacher pulled him out of the water, Fyo was already scared. He didn't need to see my reaction. When I told Fyo later that day, that when he fell in the water, I felt scared too, he looked up at me and asked, “why?” My own fear didn't make sense to him, though he spent the rest of that day talking about falling in the duck pond, crying, getting scared again, and asking to be held. I didn't bring it up, because I didn't want him to continually relive it in his mind, but I did want him to process it on his terms and I did want him to feel comfortable talking about it and talking about how scared he felt. I want him to know it's okay to be scared, especially when you feel helpless and out of control. I told him one of the things we would do to make the duck pond safer is to get him swimming lessons. 

All kids have fears, and many of them are age appropriate. My daughter is scared of loud sudden noises. While she has no problem with our 90-pound yellow lab, she is terrified of small dogs at her eye level. The first time my son saw fireworks, he got scared and thought the sky was on fire. These are the kinds of fears that most kids face and grow out of as they gain experience of the world. Yet my son's experience with the duck pond had me look up and research how to handle kid fears, the kind that occur with age and the kind that linger after an event, because while I don't think Fyo is now scared of drowning because of my response, I do think how my husband and I handle the aftermath goes a long way in my son's emotional growth. After a bit of research, I found that how we handle his duck pond fall is very similar to how we handled his sudden fright at fireworks. We listened to him talk about it, what he saw and what he felt, how when he gets scared he gets upset. We acknowledged that it happened and that it impacted him. We don't fix the problem (as in, “next year you'll be older and it won't be scary”), but just keep listening.

At the beach, my son never did let the water rise above his knees. For him, playing in the sand was enough. When his dad joined us later, they took a long walk on the beach and boardwalk. The next day, when Fyo talked about his trip to the beach, he listed the things he did, that he got buried in the sand, buried his uncle in the sand, played chase. He then added, “I didn't go in the water.”

I said, “No, you didn't go in the water.”

“That's okay.” he said.  

Tara Lindis is a former English Professor, and now a mom and writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Visit her at her blog, Occassional Observations.

Reader Comments (2)

Tara, I have some thoughts on this that I would like to email to you if that's ok.
Big Hug,
Jun 18, 2012 at 4:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoan McElroy
I agree with the fact that if he learned to swim he would feel more confident and conquer that fear, it seems as though you didn't help overcome the fear of water because it's easier for you to handle him not going in the water, than actually trying to go in. I personally do not know how to swim, but I make it a point to teach my 3 year old how to swim because children should never fear anything, that's the wonderful thing about childhood, being young and free.
Jul 12, 2012 at 6:42 PM | Unregistered Commentercassandra

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