Wednesday, September 4, 2013

To Bee or Not to Bee: The sting of fear and anxiety

Boo recently developed a fear of bees. I'm not sure where this fear originated exactly. He's never had an encounter with a bee. He did rent The Bee Movie from the library this summer. And he did recently develop a perseverative interest in the show Fetch with Ruff Ruffman, which has an episode about bees in which one of the children is afraid of bees and talks about having been stung. Perhaps that partially explains it. Whatever the source, he began to express worry about bees, not wanting to go outside and play because he thought he saw one. We tried to downplay the danger, telling him there was no need for worry and that bees don't WANT to sting people so as long as you just be still and leave them alone they will leave you alone. Little did we know we were setting the stage for the perfect storm of anxiety.

It was a warm Wednesday evening. We were at my dad's house for our weekly "family barbecue." This has been a favorite summertime activity for the past few years. One evening a week our extended family gathers together for a barbecue at which the host (hosting alternates between families) grills an entree and everyone brings a dish and we enjoy a meal, each other's company, and the outdoors. Boo had been playing happily in the sand pile near Grandpa's driveway. Boo's Dad and I were sitting with the group chatting and eating some chips. When the meal was ready, I went into the shop building where the food was set out and filled a plate. When I came back outside I glanced toward the sand pile and something was Boo was sitting in a squat position in the sand, in absolute stillness. Boo is never still. Ever. Not even in his sleep. Something was wrong. Ever so slowly he turned his head and on his face was an expression I can't even name. He was clearly crying, but his features held a mixture of desperation and terror. I set my plate on the nearest chair and went running.

I knelt behind Boo and asked him what was wrong. He said there was a bug on his leg. I looked down and saw a fly perched on his shin and I waved it away. I said that it was a fly and that it is gone now. He wailed "I thought it was a bee! I saw stripes!" His head was soaked with sweat. Tears streaked down his cheeks and his hair was matted to his face. I assured him that he was safe and that there was no bee. He said that he had thought it was a bee and that he was trying so hard to be still so that it wouldn't sting him. I don't know how long he had been sitting there like that. His body was stiff. I began wiping his face as he wept bitterly, telling me over and over how scared he had felt. I asked why he didn't call for me, since I was nearby. He said he was afraid that if he yelled it would scare the bee and make it sting him. My heart was breaking as it became clear just how terrified my poor boy had felt. I put my arms around him and helped him stand up and that's when he told me that he had wet his pants while he sat there. I choked back my own tears, knowing that Boo cannot handle seeing me cry. I don't even know if I can fathom the force of will required for my boy to force his body into absolute stillness such as this. He hadn't even chanced a dip of his head to glance at the presumed bee. I'd had no idea his fear of bees had reached this level of intensity.

I managed to walk him through the garage and strip his wet sandy clothes off and get him into the bathroom. I helped him wash his hands and feet, and wipe his face. He continued to weep desperately and cling to me. He was begging to go home. He knew that there had been no bee after all, but he told me that he couldn't stop feeling scared, couldn't stop thinking about it. I assured him it was okay to feel his feelings, and that I would keep him safe. He kept telling me how much he loves me. He agreed to wait there in the bathroom while I got him some clean clothes from the car. I helped him get dressed and he agreed to stay in the house and wait just long enough for me to eat my food before going home...but ONLY if I sent Daddy in to wait with him. I went back outside and explained to Daddy what had happened, and he went in to sit with Boo. Shortly before I finished eating, Boo emerged from the house and began playing with the older kids. I was very surprised that he was willing not only to stay, but to be outside! I couldn't believe what a fast recovery he had made from the strangle-hold of anxiety.

I took a lot away from that experience. I will be much more careful from now on about helping Boo manage his fears and anxieties. Instead of taking it lightly and giving offhand advice like "just be still" I will work on giving him concrete steps and action plans whenever possible. We have discussed bees and he knows that he can move an arm or a leg slowly to let the bee know that "I am a person, not a flower" and the bee will fly away. I have also told him that he can ALWAYS call out to me when he is scared or feels he is in danger. I'm not sure how much got through to him. I was sure to let his teacher know what had happened so she is aware of the intensity of his fear. I didn't want her to take it lightly if he had difficulty on the playground.  And I still don't know how his fear turned so intense right under my nose without me realizing it.

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