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Growing Concerns (09/10/2003)
By Dr. Martha Erickson
of the University of


Question: My 6-year-old niece recently went on a canoeing trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where she was stung by a bee for the first time. Now she won't spend any time outdoors because of her fear of bees. She starts to cry and pitch a fit if anyone lingers outside for even a moment. This is hard to deal with. What can I do to help her overcome this fear?

Answer: It's hard enough to deal with an irrational, unfounded fear, but when fear is grounded in a real, recent, painful event, it can be all-consuming. I'd suggest that for now, you and your niece's parents try not to make a big deal out of her fear--and not push her too hard to be outside, especially at this time of year when the bees are so thick. You can begin by acknowledging her feelings (for example, simply saying, "Yes, getting stung by that bee must have been really scary"). At the same time, it will be important for her to see you and others going calmly about your outside activities even when the bees are around. She may need to see over and over again that people can be outside and still not get stung. Beyond that, there are some steps you can take that may help her become more comfortable being outside in the long run.

* To help her actively master her fear, read together about bees and their behavior, with a focus on helping your niece understand as much as possible about how bees work, what attracts them and what leads them to sting. The more she knows about bees, the more she will understand that, despite her unfortunate experience, they're not out to get her. It may well have been a yellow jacket wasp, actually, that stung your niece, so try to find information about these insects, too.

* Teach her steps she can take to protect herself from bees when she is outside. For example, teach her to avoid fragrances that attract bees and to leave the sweet food in the house so they won't try to come to her picnic. Teach her to hold still if a bee comes near her, rather than startling it by swatting suddenly.

* Time will help put her fear of bees in perspective. The stinging incident is very fresh in her mind right now, but it probably will fade with time. And, as she matures, she will be better able to decide to take a calculated risk, knowing that the pleasures of playing outside outweigh the risk of another sting.

Fortunately, the bee and wasp season soon will be over and your niece can safely enjoy outdoor activities again. Hopefully, by the time the bees are out again next year, perhaps her intense fear will have subsided. But if that is not the case, and her fear interferes with her ability to enjoy ordinary outdoor activities, you may want to seek help from a psychologist who specializes in desensitizing people who have overwhelming fears or phobias. Focused, short-term treatment can be very effective in helping people learn to master their fears and get back into the swing of normal activities.

Question: Our 16-year-old son has decided to be a vegetarian. (Ironically, my husband is a butcher!) We're worried that he won't get enough protein, and it's a nuisance to try to plan meals around his strict diet. We're not sure how to react. What should we do?

Answer: It is not surprising--and probably not coincidental--that dad is a butcher and your son has decided to be a vegetarian. As hard as it is for us parents to accept, one of the major developmental tasks of adolescence is to define oneself as different from parents and other adult authority figures. That's a primary way for teens to find their individual identity. In the big scheme of things, you are fortunate that your son has chosen a mild--and even healthy--way to distinguish himself from you.

As for your concerns about the impact of a vegetarian diet on his physical health, there probably is no need to worry. As my colleagues in nutrition assure me, vegetarian diets can be very healthy and more than adequate in terms of protein. If your son eats eggs and dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt, he is probably getting more than enough protein. Even if he has eliminated dairy products from his diet, foods such as whole grains and beans can provide sufficient protein.

As for the hassles for you at mealtime, perhaps a good approach for the whole family would be for you to affirm and support his choice to be a vegetarian, but NOT necessarily cater to it. A 16-year-old is certainly old enough to share mealtime responsibilities. When you cook as you normally would for the rest of the family, let your son eat what he can and then supplement from an assortment of grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes.

Beyond that, you might turn this into a great learning opportunity for your son and you. Try engaging him in shopping for a healthy assortment of foods you all would enjoy, finding vegetarian recipes that appeal to all of you, or making a tasty vegetarian meal for the family every so often. Respectfully encourage your son to tell you why he has chosen vegetarianism--whether for health or moral reasons. And invite him to teach you what he's learning about the benefits of a vegetarian diet and about nutrition in general.

By taking him seriously and supporting his healthy experimentation, you will send a strong message that you respect him as an individual who is defining his own beliefs and behaviors. Then, whether he remains a vegetarian or not, you will have demonstrated clearly that you are there as a secure base for him as he navigates the path from childhood to adulthood. 


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