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Growing Concerns (01/11/2004)
By Dr. Martha Erickson
A question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota

Question: Last summer my 15-year-old son was stung by about 10 bees and had such a severe reaction he had to be rushed to the hospital. He now carries an "EpiPen" with him at all times. Since this incident his entire lifestyle has changed. He seldom goes out with friends, refuses to play outside and will not join any sports teams. His grades are okay, but he misses school often due to severe headaches or upset stomach. His friends tease him and don't ask to spend time with him anymore. He does spend time with us (mom and dad) as well as his girlfriend. He refers to himself as a hypochondriac because he is now very afraid of things such as headaches (brain tumor) and stomachaches (cancer). He is also very concerned about the stigma of being labeled "crazy" if he were to see a therapist. Has this one incident bound him to this sort of life? Is there something we can do to help?

Answer: A severe allergic reaction can be very traumatic and, as with any trauma, can trigger anxiety that lasts well beyond the initial crisis. The good news is that anxiety problems are very amenable to treatment, through such approaches as "talking therapies," biofeedback and/or anti-anxiety medication. Many people with anxiety problems respond especially well to relatively short-term cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps them learn to recognize the triggers and early signs of their anxiety and then change the way they respond to it. For your son, it would be wise to seek help as soon as possible so he can learn to substitute more positive coping strategies for the unhealthy patterns he's falling into.

Fortunately, he has parents and a girlfriend who can encourage him to get the help he needs. Here are some steps that might help.

* Let him know that smart, strong people seek help when life throws them a curve ball. And assure him that the bee incident would have been a real trauma for anyone. He has no reason to feel ashamed for being deeply shaken by it.

* Assure him that if he does seek help, no one else has to know unless he chooses to tell him or her. Psychologists and psychiatrists are bound by strict confidentiality rules.

* Since your son's anxiety is having an effect on his school attendance and participation in school activities, contact the school psychologist to see how he or she might help in evaluating and addressing your son's problem.

* Through the school, your church or network of friends, try to identify people who have gotten help through counseling or therapy and encourage your son to talk with them. This can help demystify "therapy" and remove its stigma. (Or have him e-mail me and I'll tell him how therapy got me through a rough time in my own life. My e-mail is mferick@umn.edu.)

* Encourage your son to check out reputable Websites and on-line support groups for people with anxiety problems. One of my favorite mental health Websites, run by and for young people, is an Australian site called "Headroom" at www.headroom.net.au. A mental health worker in your own community or school may have others to recommend.

* Coach your son about how he can respond when peers tease him about his anxious behavior. For example, other kids may be more supportive if he can acknowledge straight out that he has been really freaked out by the bee incident, saying something like, "Yeah, that trip to the ER really messed me up. I need to get back to being my old self."

Growing Concerns

A question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota

Question: My ex-husband recently remarried and he and his new wife are scheduled to take our 8-year-old daughter on a 10-day vacation to Florida next month. I'm not happy about it, but it's my ex's right under the custody agreement and I do know that he and his wife will treat her very well. However, now my daughter cries and says she doesn't want to go. In all honesty, I'm afraid she may have picked up my negative feelings and I'm not sure how to undo that and make this whole thing easier. Where do I start?

Answer: It's a good start to recognize that your own negative feelings may have rubbed off on your daughter. Now it's time to try to understand more about what she's feeling about the trip at this point. Is she worried about being away from you? Is she afraid she won't be safe or uneasy about how her new stepmother will take care of her? Is she sad because she thinks you will be sad when she's away?

Ask her what she's concerned about and listen carefully to what she tells you. Acknowledge her feelings, but then, in a clear and up-beat manner, assure her of the steps that you, her father and stepmother will take to make sure she's safe and cared for during the trip. Help her turn her attention to the good times she'll have, enjoying the warm Florida weather, visiting exciting new places, and being with her dad, who loves her very much. Children of divorce sometimes feel guilty about having fun--or admitting to one parent that they have fun with the other. So you need to show your daughter, with your smile and your tone of voice, that you want her to have a good time and that you are confident the trip will be a good experience.

This will work best if you can focus on being a co-parent with your daughter's father, even though that may be uncomfortable. If you haven't already done so, it would be wise to talk with him and his new wife about the details of the trip and ask about specific ways you can be supportive so that they and your daughter can enjoy this time together.

For example, you might take your daughter shopping for a new swimsuit for the trip. Or maybe you could give her a disposable camera so she can take pictures on the trip to show you when she returns. You could show her on the map where she'll be traveling or check out a Website for the attractions she'll see. If you can work it out with her dad and stepmom, you also might want to arrange a designated time during the trip when your daughter can call to check in with you. (She may need reassurance that YOU are doing fine while she's away!)

Before, during and after the trip, you will have opportunities to affirm the importance of your daughter's relationship with her father and her stepmother. Your words and actions will show your daughter that her love is big enough to encompass all of the parents who care for her--and that her relationship with you is not diminished in any way by the good times she has with those other caring adults. 


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