How Do You Help a Young Child Get Over His Fear of a Neighbor?

Dec 17, 2019. 1 comments
Parental AdvisoryParental AdvisoryTackling your most pressing parenting dilemmas, one tantrum at a time. Email your kid-rearing questions to mwalbert@lifehacker.com with "Parental Advisory" in the subject line.

We’ve all got stories about that neighbor. The one who never cuts the grass. The one who never cleans up after their dog. The one who plays video games—with the sound enhanced by a subwoofer—in the middle night, right up against your shared bedroom wall.

These all vary in level of annoyance and may or may not prompt you to take action; but what do you do when a neighbor’s behavior has scared your child so much that they’re now afraid to play outside? Here is this week’s Parental Advisory question:

Dear Parental Advisory,

A new neighbor moved in two houses down while going through an incredibly bitter separation from his wife. For the first few weeks when his wife came over to collect their kids, more than once it turned into a flaming row in the street and eventually involved the police. That was about six months ago. He still lives there but keeps to himself, he doesn’t come outside and neither do the kids.

My three-year-old is terrified of “the shouting man,” who he has only heard but never seen himself. He frets that the man will come shout at him or use “rude words” at him. He wants to know why the shouting man lives on our street and he’s always asking if the man will come into the house and steal his favorite cuddly. My wife and I have repeatedly and patiently explained that the man (we don’t even know his name) isn’t mad at our family and that he doesn’t come out on the street or even know us. It was a long time ago; he was having a hard time. The man doesn’t want his cuddly. This is a safe dead-end street, all his friends play outside without anyone getting shouted at. We’ve talked about all the neighbors our son can go to if something happens and he can’t find us, and about how the police will help if there’s serious danger. He seems to understand, but after a few days the worry comes right back again.

How can I deal with this? I’ve said everything I can think of. I don’t know the “shouting man” from Adam’s house cat, so I don’t think knocking on his door and saying, “Six months ago you scared the hell out of our toddler; can you show him you’re not a monster?” is possible. I’m worried this is turning into an anxiety problem. Our son refused to go to a community caroling event with his friends this weekend in case the guy was there.

—Out of Ideas

Dear Out of Ideas,

Boy, The Shouting Man really knows how to make an impression on his new neighbors, doesn’t he? It hurts my heart to imagine your three-year-old, terrified of some loud, faceless man who might come steal his cuddly. But the good news here is two-fold: Your son’s reaction makes perfect sense, developmentally speaking, and you’re on the right track with how you’re handling it. You’ve just got to take it one step further.

Shelli Dry, a pediatric therapist and director of clinical operations at Enable My Child, tells me that age three is when children typically start to develop fears about a variety of things, such as monsters under the bed or the dark.

“And in this case, the child has a really realistic reason for his fear,” Dry says. “He had this traumatic experience, and he’s having a hard time getting over it.”

In other words, more than monsters or darkness, this is a fear that sprang not just from his own imagination but from an actual lived traumatic experience, which is now being compounded by what he imagines the shouting man might do next. I agree that knocking on this man’s door is not the way to go; there are lots of ways that could backfire. Instead, what your son needs is what any of us need when we’re afraid; he needs to take back the control.

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At three years old, he’s not likely to be convinced that the shouting man isn’t a threat to him. Even though he’s old enough to understand what you’re saying, the fear from the trauma he experienced is more powerful than your logic. But you’ve started to brush against what he does need instead—solutions or strategies for dealing with the shouting man if he starts yelling again.

You’ve talked to him about which neighbors are safe neighbors he can go to, but try sitting down with him and getting really specific about what actions he can take if he encounters the man and gets scared. These should be things he specifically finds comforting, Dry says, and because of his age, you’ll need to lead the conversation and brainstorm with him.

“It should be things that make him comfortable,” she says. “’I can go sit with my favorite blanket, I can rock with my mommy, I can put on headphones and listen to music,’ these types of coping strategies.”

This approach is actually similar to how parents often deal with those monsters under the bed. We know the monsters aren’t real. We know there’s nothing to be afraid of. And we can tell them this, but they’ll be afraid all the same. But if we present a strategy, though (lining the edge of the bed with protective stuffed animals or applying “monster spray” to all the scary corners), they are more likely to calm down. We’ve validated their fear and given them back some of the control.

Have a parenting dilemma you’re grappling with? Email your questions to mwalbert@lifehacker.com with “Parental Advisory” in the subject line, and I’ll try to answer them here.


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