Our five-year-old son has always been an anxious child. He is the happiest at home with us and his older sister, 7, playing with her toy cars and helping me cook. It’s pretty normal, according to friends – he’s small for his age and finds the hustle and bustle of the playground a little scary, but he has classmates and loves his teacher.
The only thing he can’t deal with is ignorance. Ever since he was a baby, spending time in new places has been incredibly stressful for him. When we went on vacation to Spain last year, he was only four years old and almost sick with fear of flying, although he was fine once in it. When we got to the villa we were sharing with friends, he threw a tantrum because he “didn’t like” his room and was terrified of the (quite ordinary) fireplace. He was clingy and unhappy all week, and when we got home it took another week to calm him down.
We wondered if he should be evaluated for autism, but beyond his anxiety, he shows no other signs. He is a very imaginative child, relying on his fears – big dogs, the dark and spending the night in new places.
The problem is that we were recently invited to the wedding of a very dear friend. She wants the whole family to come, and that means two nights at a hotel 300 miles away. Our daughter is thrilled – she’s going to be bridesmaid. Normally, my parents would have my son, but they’re on vacation that week, and their house is the only place he’s happy to stay, outside of his own. Previous holidays were also incredibly stressful – as a toddler he always ended up sleeping in our bed and screaming because he wanted to be home.
I even wondered if something traumatic might have happened to him as a baby on one of our annual trips, but despite racking my brains, I can’t think of anything. It seems like he’s always been like that.
Knowing his likely reaction, we kindly presented the idea of the trip, explaining to him that we will be with him all the time, that he can sleep in our room, and showing him pictures of the hotel, which has a swimming pool and a playground. But upset, the moment we talked about it, he burst into tears, shouting, “I don’t want to go!” You can’t force me!”
Of course we can, because the alternative is to drop my friend – and worse, my daughter. But ever since we told him, he’s been worried sick.
He begged us not to go and fell asleep crying despite all our efforts to reassure him.
I hate to see him so unhappy, and his sister is now upset because her desperation makes her feel like she shouldn’t be a bridesmaid (of course, we told her she should).
The trip is still a fortnight away – we thought we’d give him time to reconcile, but it seems we’ve only prolonged the agony. We’ll go, and we’ll do our best to amuse him, but when I look to the future, I don’t see how we can go on like this, with every holiday and visit hostage to his tantrums and misery. .
My husband says it can’t go on forever, but I’m afraid he’ll retreat to more and more “safe” places as he grows older.
I guess if it doesn’t calm down, the next step is some kind of therapy to help him deal with his fears. But it’s hard not to feel like we’ve failed as parents, when he’s sobbing about going to a wedding – and there’s nothing we can do to comfort him.
More parental confessions: My parents are too busy to be grandparents