Q: My five-year-old son was so nervous on the first day of kindergarten that he threw up shortly after getting there. Since then, heís been crying every morning about having to ride the bus. He cries on the way to the bus stop, cries while heís waiting, and I have to literally push him on it when it arrives. At least one morning a week Iíve given in and driven him to school. Each time he promises that if Iíll take him “just one more time,” heíll willingly ride the bus from then on. Needless to say, his promises are empty. When I ask him what heís afraid of, he canít tell me, and his teacher says heís fine by the time he gets to school. A counselor friend of mine says my sonís manipulating me. What do you think?
A: The idea that children manipulate their parents has been vastly over blown. It implies a mental maturity and more importantly, an ability to analyze human behavior that five-year-old children do not possess and wonít possess for several years to come.
Your son isnít trying to manipulate you in the sense of conspiring against you. He is really scared. However, there are two kinds of “really scared.” In the first, the child is afraid of an event that has happened or might well happen. Your sonís fear would fall into this category if, for example, the bus had been struck by a truck and turned on its side the first morning he rode it. In this case, his fear would be reality-based and would merit some protective action on your part.
The second kind of “really scared ”involves either (a) a fear of something that has never happened and has little to no chance of ever happening or, (b) a vague, undefined fear that the child canít put into words. Iím reasonably certain your sonís fear falls under “b.” Heís obviously not afraid of school itself, or the teacher would see evidence of it in the classroom. The bus driver could also probably tell you that he calms down by the time the bus reaches the next stop.
Iím sure youíve said and done everything you can to solve this problem. Now itís your sonís turn. In fact, he is the only person who can solve this problem and believe me, an otherwise emotionally healthy five-year-old is completely capable of bringing a fear of this sort under control.
Tell your son that he simply must ride the bus every morning. Youíll continue to walk him to the bus stop (which you should do regardless) and wait with him until the bus arrives, but you will not drive him to school again, period. Assure him that itís all right to cry and give him full permission to do so. Tell him that sometimes crying helps people get over fears of this sort. Donít promise him anything special if he doesnít cry, and donít make a big deal of it the first morning heís successful at “sucking it up.” On that auspicious day, just tell him youíre proud of him and let that be it. After all, getting on the bus without tears is no big deal.
If your son sees firm resolve on your part concerning this matter, this too should pass within a relatively short period of time.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, call Elizabeth Stevens at (919) 403-8712.