I have three of the best children in the world and each is remarkably different. My oldest two, 9 and 10, are easy going. Nothing phases them, much like their father. Our third, however, is more like her Mommy… a bit of a worry wart. When Bree was just 5 years old, she came to me in a panic and asked, “Mommy, how will I know how to drive a car?” She’s had similar concerns about going to college, marriage, and pretty much anything she can’t know with certainty. Sound familiar?
Several months ago, Bree developed an intense fear of someone throwing up on her. Her teacher had remarked that she had been acting very differently in school. When we questioned her about what was going on, she reluctantly told us about a girl in her class who had a bad cough and could sometimes not stop coughing. She was terrified that this girl would lose it and throw up near or, even worse, on her.
So, at this point, the therapist in me kicked in a bit, and I spoke to Bree about the fact that kids her age can sometimes throw up unexpectedly, and that it is quite possible, even likely, someone in her class will throw up in class at some point. I pointed out that, although she would likely be able to get out of the way in time, even the worst case scenario, albeit gross, would simply mean a change of clothes and wash up…not pleasant, but manageable, right?
Bree seemed okay with this little talk, and I gave myself a pat on the back, thinking her worries of throw up were over. Little did I know, it was just the beginning. That day, we went as a family to a magic show at our children’s school. During the intermission, they served ice cream. Now, granted, when you combine more than 100 children with ice cream, someone is bound to throw up. However, I was not quite expecting this to happen less than a foot away from my daughter. It had to be fate as this adorable little four-year old boy walked up to Bree and literally threw up at her feet.
Again, I go into therapist mode, thinking this is great exposure. I tell my daughter how great it is that it happened and she got through it… well sort of. She was actually a sobbing, clinging mess for a while but eventually went and sat down to watch the rest of the show. Despite my trying really hard to convince her of the serendipity of this event, she wasn’t quite buying it.
The following day was her birthday pool party and I could tell she was a bit apprehensive. She made it through the swimming part of her party reasonably well, but then during the pizza and cake part, as luck would have it, disaster struck again. Yes, a little boy at her party choked a bit on his pizza and threw up a tiny bit. By this point, I was even like, “Seriously???”
Now, Bree was in full panic mode. When we got home from the party, she informed us she was not going to school the next day or, for that matter, ever. My husband and I, at first, gently and with encouragement, explained that she would be fine and that she really had to go to school. However, when the next morning came with a flat out refusal, the gentle encouragement turned to frustration and then full-on desperation. I can’t remember exactly how we got her to school, but I know there were many threats made, as everything I learned in grad school went right out the window.
Despite our success at getting her to school, her behavior deteriorated quickly. She went from being a model little first grader to an absolute nightmare. Every time a classmate coughed, Bree ran for the hills… the bathroom, her cubby, or any place where she could possibly hide. Her poor teacher, ragged by the end of each day, was at her wits end after a week or so of this. Similar to us, she had tried the kind and gentle approach, but was now desperate as Bree was clearly disrupting the whole class.
In trying to cope with what was happening, I realized that I had gotten myself into the same cycle as many of the parents I work with. At first, coddling and compassionate and, when this didn’t work, angry and frustrated, which would inevitably lead to guilt and despair. The whole cycling starting over again. As this was clearly not working, I realized we needed a solid plan to tackle this monster…the fear that is… not my daughter.
Trying to stay level-headed and confident (although I was not feeling that way), I met with my daughter’s teacher and one of the director’s of her school. A bit embarrassed, I explained what I do for a living and how successful I am with other people’s kids. Thankfully, they were on board, and we put together a plan combining some exposure therapy with a great system of positive reinforcement to reward Bree for staying where she needed to be instead of running away. We also worked on this at home, practicing not running and hiding if she heard someone cough or complain of a tummy ache. And everyday we talked about the possibility of someone throwing up in class and what she would do if this happened. She became one of my youngest beta testers for the Live OCD Free app I was about to launch, consistently practicing her challenges to fight the “Worry Wizard”.
I would like to say our system worked flawlessly, but there were many bumps in the road. I had to be as patient and trusting as I often request of the parents whose children I treat. I realized how easy it is to expect and want instant gratification. But, the learning process does take some time.
Fortunately, within four weeks or so, Bree was on her way to earning all her “suns” nearly everyday. And I am proud to say, she has now, two months later, completely graduated from the “sun program” and officially defeated the “Worry Wizard.”
I have learned more than you can imagine from this experience. It has given me a whole new understanding of the intense emotions a parent experiences when his or her child is struggling with anxiety. However, it has also made me even more trusting of the therapeutic approaches I know work so well. Even more amazing… my daughter has not only overcome her fear of throw up, but she has gained a confidence in handling all kinds of previously worrisome situations. Sleepovers and playing with dogs were both big ones that she is now perfectly comfortable with. She now beams with pride as she tells me all the different ways she battles the “Worry Wizard” and wins!!!