My youngest is dealing with a lot lately.
She has lived daily with the slow, in-your-face, decline of my mother, her grandmother, as she succumbs to cancer. She is struggling to come to grips with the idea of death, with all its permanency. Her heart has her thinking all sorts of grave thoughts. Thoughts much too big for a nine-year-old. Thoughts such as, “First the mother [my Granny] dies then the daughter [my mother] dies,” and “Now you and Daddy will grow old too and die leaving me all alone.”
As if this impending death was not enough, she also has to face losing one of her big sisters to college. This sister - who she just recently has decided is not so bad and maybe is worth bonding with after all - is going “very far away.” She has already decided in her nine-year-old mind that this sister will never come home again, that we won’t be a whole family again and to top it all off she will never see this sister’s fun boyfriend again.
Finally, she herself is moving schools in the fall, leaving behind her dear friends and the safe, secure environment of her montessori school. This school – which we chose specifically for her (and her older sisters) because of its nurturing and family-oriented atmosphere - must give way to a new school. A school which, while I am sure will be lovely as well, will be new and unknown and scary nonetheless. And which will mean starting over with friends and teachers and new, “harder” work that will help her with her learning disabilities.
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So much for a kid to shoulder. And it shows. In the stomachaches that she now often complains of. In her return to night waking and needing support to fall back to sleep. In her weepy moments, once a thing of the past, now back as part of her way of dealing with these big life changes.
Why so much worrying for such a young being? I remember posing this same question to my beloved pediatrician nine years ago when my eldest, then an impressionable eight-year-old, was suddenly suffering from severe separation anxiety. After watching an animated (Rated G no less!) film she was sure I would succumb to the same fate the parents in Jimmy Neutron had – kidnapping by aliens! Throw in the tornado which touched down in Lexington that spring and I had one nervous kid on my hands.
She asked incessantly about situations that could not possibly occur: “Mom say we were to all take a nap one afternoon and we woke up and you and Dad were gone?” She wouldn’t let me out of her sight, yelling “Mom, are you there?” if I went into another room in our house. Going up, or down, to another floor in the house was not even an option. It did not help that I told her repeatedly, for weeks on end, that her father and I would not leave her; that she and her sister were too old to nap; that if by some wild turn of events she woke and found us gone she could go to any number of neighbors for help; that just because the trees were blowing in the wind did not mean that a tornado was about to hit.
Out of answers and patience I asked dear Dr. Parrott about her incessant worrying. He had the only answer I needed. His answer was this: that between the ages of seven and ten children are beginning to see the world in a realistic manner. Suddenly the perils that are out there are something that could happen to them. But their brains are not developed enough yet to rationalize that these dangers will most likely not happen.
His words set my mind at ease. This, like much in life with kids, was a phase. We would get through this time of anxiety and my child’s brain would mature to the point of letting go of some of her childhood fears. In the meantime the best thing to do was be patient and give reassurance – even if it meant handing out hugs and saying the same thing over and over again for a while.
So although it is hard to stand by and watch our youngest worry so, I will do the same I did for my other two – give her empathetic support and wait for her brain to click up to the next notch in her understanding of the world and its workings. Oh, and pray that none of her big fears come true.