Ask the Expert: How to calm obsessive fear of abduction
Q I am a mother of two girls aged 10 and eight. Our neighbours were burgled in the middle of the day about four months ago. There was a lot of talk about it at the time, and we completely overhauled our own home security afterwards. We tried to play it down and they seemed to forget about it.
There was something on TV about Madeleine McCann about four weeks ago, and now they seem to be picking up on every story about abductions, murders and accidents.
They don’t want their windows open at night in case someone “steals” them, won’t get into bed until all the doors are locked, and ask all the time about burglars and “bad” people.
I keep saying these things won’t happen to them and that I’m watching out for them, but the 10 year old is starting to obsess and become anxious about other things like whether I’ll drown in the sea, or what if someone crashes into me.
I feel the situation is getting out of control. Is there anything I can do to make them both feel safer and stop this constant worrying?
A While your neighbours were the official victims of the crime, something like this can affect the whole community and everyone will have a different reaction depending on their previous experiences, their personality, how others around them react, and their age.
It is age-appropriate for your two children to be developing an understanding of the dangers posed by “real” people such as burglars, robbers, murderers and child-snatchers.
Up till now their fears were more about monsters and fantasy figures, but there’s a gradual realisation dawning that there are bad people out there and that bad things do happen, and a child’s first experience of crime can have a very profound effect on them.
It is not unusual for something like this to come up a few months after the event. The fact that you played it down and tried not to make a fuss may have meant they didn’t feel they had the opportunity to talk about niggling worries at the time, and maybe the Madeleine McCann news story just brought it all up again.
A very important part of how your children react is how you react. When children are faced with any new situation and are unsure how to respond, they look to the adults in their lives. While you may have thought that you kept it low key at the time, they might have overheard anxious conversations and will have noticed the increased security.
Anxiety is contagious: children will pick it up from you and, as seems to have happened here, from each other. Your 10 year old sounds like the chief worrier of the two of them, and it might be an idea to initially focus on her, while also supporting the younger child.
Awareness versus fear
Parents obviously want their children to grow up with some level of personal security-consciousness, but not so much that it interferes with their enjoyment of life.
Home security is not something we generally discuss with younger children, because we tend to see it as an adult responsibility, but maybe explaining to them that there is a routine and a plan around alarms and locking might make them feel more secure and stop the constant checking.
However, remember that whatever behaviour you model around security will be watched and picked up by them, so if you are extremely security-conscious, they’re likely to follow suit.
To help them in the process of resolving their worries, it’s important to listen to them and tease out exactly what they are worried about.
Don’t play down or dismiss their worries as nonsense; they need to know they can talk to you, and that you’re listening and taking them seriously. While we can reach the end of our patience with a constant worrier, it’s important not to shut them down with a “stop worrying”, because the child doesn’t know how to stop, and the worries will only fester and worsen.
Children sometimes hear half a story and fill in the blanks which, when you’re 10, can lead to unusual mixtures of fact and fantasy.
They don’t have the experience and perspective of adults, and tend to generalise and personalise events: because it’s in the news it happens all the time and will happen to me.
In your case, acknowledge that a bad thing did happen, and there are bad people out there, but put it in context: burglaries rarely happen when people are in the house and burglars want to steal things they can sell rather than hurt people.
On the Madeleine McCann story, explain that the reason it stays in the news is because it is so unusual and rare.
Talk things through in a calm and confident way and stress that you are watching over them and won’t take risks with their safety.
You say that your 10 year old is starting to worry about everything. This type of generalised anxiety can arise from a single event such as a burglary, or when initial smaller worries accumulate. Start by finding out what the larger worries are, and work on those, and the smaller ones may start to ease.
Another possibility is that your older child is just naturally anxious, as many people are.
If her anxieties continue to escalate and start to interfere with her enjoyment of life (sleep, eating, socialising, play, and so on) you should consider a referral to a child psychologist.
Your GP can refer you to your local HSE service, or the Psychological Society of Ireland (psihq.ie) has an online register of qualified and accredited therapists.
Dr Sarah O’Doherty is a clinical psychologist.
John Sharry will return next week.