Nothing to Fear Except Pants With Nobody in Them and Little Bunny Foo Foo

15 05 2008

When I was a child, there were two things that completely and totally terrified me. Two things that created that nauseous, head-hurting fear, the type that triggers the fight-or-flight response: The song ‘Hey There Little Red Riding Hood’ and the Dr. Seuss story ‘What Was I Scared Of?‘  That’s the one about the pale green pants with nobody inside them. Even as an adult, even though I know it’s irrational and those things were meant to be funny, they still give me a substantial case of the heebie jeebies, to the point that I can not listen to ‘Hey Little Red Riding Hood’ without getting more than a little freaked out. And I flat out refuse to read the story of the pants with nobody inside them to Neener and Roo. Which is probably for the best. The last thing we need is to add to the list of things that cause Neener and me inordinate amounts of anxiety. We’ve both got enough to worry about, thanks. 

I am no stranger to the world of anxiety disorders. Despite the fact that I was a pretty happy, secure, confident child, I was also an anxious worrier. Things that did not affect other kids frightened the bejesus out of me. I spent a lot of time dwelling on what I would do if my house caught on fire, or if there was an earthquake, or if robbers tried to steal me, or if a moose or cougar started chasing me. My solution was to cross my fingers, and repeat soothing little phrases in my head until my anxious thoughts and feelings went away. Now as an adult, despite the fact that I am a pretty happy, secure, confident grown-up, I am prone to spontaneous panic attacks, and for twelve years or so, I’ve grappled with a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder known as trichotillomania. When I am stressed or anxious, I literally pull my hair out, as a way of coping with and releasing tension. But I’m lucky. My anxiety issues are fairly mild and do not disrupt my daily life much. I have been able to manage quite well with Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy techniques, and without medication. And I know what to look for in my kids, the subtle little signs that they may have inherited my propensity for such issues.  

I was expecting to see anxiety issues emerge in Roo, what with the Autism and all. And they still might. But right now, it is Neener I’m more concerned about. She too is a happy, secure, confident kid most of the time, and she too is suffering from disordered anxiety. To a point, it is developmentally normal for kids to have fears and worries, both rational and irrational. But when those fears and worries begin to impact a child’s – or a family’s – social, physical and emotional functioning, it’s a big ol’ red flag. That is where we are right now. That’s where we realized we were back in October, when Neener’s bedtime rituals of very precisely arranged blankets, and specific phrases that must be said just the right way became even more rigid, more complex, and more necessary. Then suddenly, she did not want to go to school anymore. Then she began covering her ears as soon as we entered the building. Then she began spending most of the morning hiding in the class bathroom.  Her teacher figured it was a sensory issue – an aversion to ambient noise, similar to Roo’s – and suggested we have Neener evaluated for Autism too. The principal figured she was doing it for attention – that she was being ignored at home due to her twin sister’s issues – and suggested that she simply be locked out of the bathroom to change the behaviour. I figured she was afraid of something, but could not for the life of me figure out what because Neener staunchly refused to talk about it. So I did a little detective work, and finally managed to put the pieces together. She was afraid of the book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. A supposedly playful alphabet book they read nearly every day for a few weeks. A book that inspired the bulletin board decorations. A book they listened to on tape and sang songs about. To the other kids, the book was funny. To Neener, it was frightening because it was about 26 little letters who ran away from home, climbed a tree, and fell out of the tree and got hurt. Separation from parents and physical injury? A smart, sensitive, anxiety prone kid’s worst nightmare. And it didn’t end there. After an innocent comment about people being litter bugs and making the earth messy, she obsessed for days about every piece of garbage she saw. After an innocent comment about her father being ‘an old fella’, Neener spiralled into hysterical screams that her daddy was not old. All because we had used the concept of age to explain death to her- that people tended to die when they got old. After an innocnet lesson on how to make her bed, she spent night after night after night obsessing that her bed was made the wrong way. She stopped eating tomatoes because she was scared of choking. She worried that apple juice would give her a tummy ache. And then, there’s the song Little Bunny Foo Foo, which sends her into an ear-covering, face-hiding, heart-racing, paralyzed-by-fear cold fit, that no amount of talking, no amount of rationalizing can reverse. Why? Because at the end of the song, Bunny Foo Foo gets turned into a goon, and Neener loves bunnies dearly. The though of one, even one with the audacity to disobey a fairy godmother and bop field mice on the head, being turned into anything goonish is horrifying to her. 

Tough love would say that she just needs to toughen up, to be told that her fears and her worries are silly, and that she must simply get over it. But knowing that kids with anxiety disorders are much more likely to become depressed, abuse drugs and alcohol, and suffer from low self-esteem and countless other issues as adults, I know not to react that way to her anxiety. I know, because I understand how she feels. Neener’s fears may be irrational, but they are very real to her. Telling her that she is being silly won’t do her self-esteem any favours, and certainly won’t do anything to lessen her worries. It will only add shame and embarrassment to the already complicated mix. Neener must be handled with compassion. That is not to say that I will indulge her anxiety and go along with her efforts to control everything around her through perfectionist and obsessive compulsive tendencies. But I will acknowledge her feelings, and attempt to give her the tools to release her stress and anxiety in a healthy way. I am teaching her a few Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tricks. I am teaching her relaxation methods. I am encouraging her to be brave and face her fears, to talk about what is on her mind when she can, and to distract herself when her worries get too big and too loud. And sometimes, when I know she needs it, I am protecting her from the things that trigger her anxiety. “No singing Little Bunny Foo Foo” is a hard and fast rule in our house, at least for now.

Our lives have faced much upheaval in the last few months. Neener and Roo started school. Baby Squiggles was born. Both our goldfish died. And now, in two short weeks, we are moving to another province, and undergoing countless other changes, big and small. Frankly, it all makes me feel a little panicky and stressed, so I can well imagine what it is doing to Neener. But, we keep reassuring her that it will be ok. And it will. We just have to work harder than the average family to keep stress, anxiety, and worry levels manageable for everyone. And we have to employ a few therapy strategies from time to time in order to do that. Which makes me think of something else I may try with Neener one of these days. When I was a child, my parents had a recording of ‘What Was I Scared Of?’ on vinyl. One day, when I’d had enough of being scared of that damn story, I stole the record. I took it up into my closet and completely destroyed it. I knew that ruining my folks’ record was wrong. I knew that I’d probably get in trouble if they found out, and that they would not understand why I’d done it. But I did not care. It made me feel better. It made me feel like I had gained some power over something that caused me a great deal of distress. Facing your fears is all well and good, but literally smashing them to bits and pieces…now that’s empowering. Maybe when Neener has a bit better grasp on her bravery, we will go buy a Bunny Foo Foo book and we’ll wreck it together. I know she is terrified of Little Bunny Foo Foo, but I also know that she loves parentally sanctioned destruction. Maybe it will give her the same sense of relief, the same sense of power it gave me when I was a kid. Maybe we’ll even wreck our copy of ‘What Was I Scared Of?’ too, just for good measure. That will probably make us both feel better.







3 responses

16 05 2008

Your post encourages me. I deal with anxiety myself, and for whatever reason your commitment to respecting your kids’ anxieties without enabling their compulsions just encourages me.

16 05 2008

The girls are so lucky to have a mom who tries so hard to undersatnd them and validate their feelings.
As you may remember I too was a child of extreme anxiety…here are a few other strategies I remember us (that is you, Neener and I)using when we were babes in the woods:
1. Drinking pickle juice and laughing so hard it came out of nose
2. Listening to ABBA especially super trooper
3. Calling back the spirit of Richie Valence
4. Flicking ice cream at the basement wall
5. And lastly…three words: Stand by Me.
Hang in there girl—you guys are fantastic parents and amazing people!

18 05 2008

Dear Amy,
As children we are all afraid of something. I think it would be a great idea to destroy the bunny foo foo book. everybody has a bunny foo foo or an empty pants story. for some people it is a fear of snakes, or a fear of hunger or a fear of being left alone with only your pj’s on. Somehow we develop coping mechanisms. I destroy snakes (it may be wrong but I am a fright and fight person) and dad doesn’t wear PJ’s. I know you will find a way to put bunny foo foo in his place in the land of rational thinking.
Rosabelle is too sweet. She has dad eating out of the palm of her paw.

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