Riley has always been a sensitive sort of kid. Doesn’t like loud noises, seems particularly overwhelmed by pain, is picky about food to the point where it’s really not even remotely funny and/or something I can just make him deal with.

He gets anxious about things, too. Not, say, the looming specter of death, which you’d think would be a creepy thing for a five-year-old to think about yet he’s the one who’s reminded me on more than one occasion that while I like to think our cat just ran away to a Cat Spa of some kind, SHE PROBABLY GOTS DEAD, MOM.

No, he tends to get spun up about potentially negative scenarios, and can’t let them go. Like, he hates balloons because they’re just floating there…full of the the horrible potential to pop. When will it pop, in a loud and startling fashion? No one knows. It might not, after all. But it might.

With very few exceptions, he can’t watch movies all the way through. If the music starts getting dramatic and it seems something even mildly scary is going to happen—I’m talking rated-G scary—he has to leave the room. He can’t stand the suspense.

There are plenty of examples, but essentially, I feel like I can picture what is happening in his mind: the idea of a bad outcome is lodged there, and he can’t find his way around it. It takes over until it’s nearly all he can think about. The foreign food item I’ve placed on his plate is so overwhelming with the probability that it tastes bad, he not only can’t bring himself to try it, he can’t even handle it sitting there.

I imagine he’ll eventually grow out of some of these quirks in the same way he eventually stopped referring to his thumb as a “shum” (oh! I miss the shum!), but of course I have moments when I am worried he will not. I worry (ironically!) that he will spend too much time worrying. That instead of being open to new experiences, he will be mired in What Ifs.

I read a book called Freeing Your Child from Anxiety that had a decent metaphor for anxiety, and I talked with Riley about it. “Can you imagine a dog,” I told him, “That’s living in a house and when someone knocks at the door it just goes crazy, it barks and barks and barks because it’s all freaked out?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Like that dog across the street.” (He’s terrified of that dog.) (It’s a nasty little Chihuahua that I would dearly love to drop kick.)

“Yeah. And the dog is scared because it thinks there’s a bad guy at the door. But guess who’s really there? It’s just a nice mailman, and he’s bringing the mail.”

“Is there a present in the mail?”

“Uh. Well sure. Maybe. Anyway, so you know how you sometimes get worried about stuff, even when Mommy and Daddy say you don’t need to worry? That’s your brain being like that dog. Barking because it’s imagining something bad happening.”

We talked more about the dog and how he could try telling his own dog (his anxiety dog, oh god, I know, you’re like where is this going) to sit when he starts getting spun up.

And you know, it actually sort of works sometimes. Once when we were watching a kids’ show and the music got all dun dun DUNNNN I saw him get up and pace the room a bit, murmuring sit, dog, sit! under his breath.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t, and he can’t deal, and instead of being patient or even understanding, I snap at him. My own dog is a snarly asshole who thinks shameful things like don’t be such a chicken and goddamn it why don’t you trust me when I tell you there’s nothing to be scared of.

I want to help him to not be held back by fears, but it’s true I also secretly want him to be brave and adventurous and willing to confront that which intimidates him. It can be very difficult to pick apart where that line is between helping a child overcome a challenge, and wanting to…I don’t know, push them into a different personality, like you’re trying to put them into an ill-sized coat.

It seems to me that some of the most difficult things to help your child with are the things you dislike about yourself. Because raising a kid shouldn’t be about getting another chance at your own life, but sometimes, down deep in the unlit areas, it can feel that way.

We want our kids to be happy and we want to help them not have broken places and we ourselves are broken and not always happy and it feels like an impossibly enormous responsibility, this task of shepherding a child into the person they will grow to be. I am not qualified, my dog barks. I am so fucking bad at this! Sit, I say, with no conviction.


113 Responses to “Bark”

  1. Danell on April 8th, 2011 7:10 pm


  2. parodie on April 9th, 2011 7:55 am

    I am an adult (by most standards perfectly normal) and I have a LOT of trouble handling suspense in movies/tv shows. Truly bad things are fine (e.g. CSI franchises) but suspense is HARD.

    Knowing the ending helps (having someone who can reassure me that things end well means I can usually sit through a suspenseful scene more easily). Through exposure and repetition, I have also learnt that bad scenes usually end well somehow – but sitting through the suspense is still hard.

    Lots of love for you & Riley. Good luck! I’m not sure there’s a magic bullet, but I hope you find something that works for you.

  3. wm on April 9th, 2011 6:25 pm

    What a beautiful post!

  4. Melissa on April 10th, 2011 5:00 pm

    The part where Riley whispered “sit, dog, sit” while pacing may have broken my heart. As they say here in the south..bless his heart!
    As always, fabulous writing, and an awesome serving of the truth so many other parents take comfort in reading.

    Bonus that you called out an asshole in the comments section.

  5. on April 10th, 2011 5:19 pm

    This was a beautiful post. Thank you somuch for sharing!

  6. A Lurker on April 10th, 2011 7:14 pm

    I was so moved reading all of the beautiful comments people shared, and how much they related to you and were relieved that they weren’t the only ones in that situation. I was disappointed, however, to see that of all the 100 or so comments you decided to answer to the one negative one in the bunch. Don’t give people like that any power by responding. People will always criticize but there is no need to internalize that crap!

  7. wendysurf on April 10th, 2011 11:13 pm

    I’ve been spelling dun dun dunn wrong all these years? I’ll be happy if they grow up to be happy LAW ABIDING citizens.

  8. Sonia on April 11th, 2011 5:53 pm

    AMEN to Christie and Sunny above! ‘Anonymous’, how about a steaming hot cup of shut the fuck up?!
    Linda, you know I have an internet fangirl-crush on you that is really only semi-creepy, right? THIS post is why. It’s *so* difficult to not pass on our own damage to our kids. I didn’t realize until I became a parent, that the little shits have their own personalities that can totally screw up and complicate best layed plans. WHY isn’t that in the manual?
    My kiddo has severe sensory issues that require the help of an occupational therapist to navigate. I don’t know the right answer, but I recognize in your writing that you’re headed in the right direction. I think you’re a phenomenal parent. Thank you for your candor.

  9. Jude on April 12th, 2011 5:35 am

    This post is absolutely amazing. It made me cry, it’s so true. You’re a fantastic parent – regardless of your dog – and you make a lot of people feel a lot better about their own broken bits. Thank you.

  10. Heather on April 18th, 2011 7:38 am

    Just saw a review of this book, “Is a worry worrying you?” and thought of you. Maybe worth a look at the library?

  11. Jem on April 26th, 2011 12:44 pm

    Ah, this is one of my favourite entries ever. First I really like how you dealt with it with Riley, that’s good advice for my future if I have kids :) Second, I can totally relate to the last paragraph.

  12. Amy on April 27th, 2011 10:56 am

    I would also recommend Is A Worry Worrying You and also the book Courage (can’t remember the author) My oldest who is now 9 is very much like Riley. My youngest seems to be able to go with the flow and somehow I just see him as being OK with whatever comes his way. But Ian I worry about. I got the book you mentioned because I saw it on your site one day and I am very thankful that you shared it. I haven’t had the “sit dog, sit” experience yet, but I also found one called Taking the Grrr Out of Anger and can often hear Ian whisper Grrrr and then tell me he needs a few minutes to himself. (His response to being scared and unsure is to get angry)

    The scary thing….I see a lot of me in him and I want to protect him from some of the crappy decisions I made. But he is who is and all we can do as parents is what you’re doing now. Reading, learning, trying!! You are an awesome parent and an awesome person (and I would like to drop kick Sugar and her piss poor attitude….she’s just jealous because she will never be as fabuolous as you are!)

  13. Kaci on May 9th, 2011 7:58 pm

    I knew it. I knew my concerns about my daughter’s anxiety weren’t unfounded. Our regular pediatrician wasn’t available at our last well baby check up, and the new guy practically scoffed.

    My daughter has this irrational fear of bugs. I say irrational, because she SCREAMS and cries and tried to climb back in to my uterus when she sees a gnat, or an ant. (Cue us moving to VA from Seattle area, and seriously, Cicadas shed their exoskeletons every where here.)

    The pediatrician told me that because I “perceive it as anxiety, doesn’t mean it is anxiety” and that “parents are quick to put adult labels on their child’s feelings when it may just be a phase.” I wanted to pay Chuck Norris to round house kick him in the jimmy.

    My daughter is terrified of bugs, but little else. I always liked to say she was born “concerned” because she had this look on her face from day one, like “I know you have NO IDEA what you are doing. The jig is up lady.”

    I really needed to read this, I’ve definitely been to the “GOOD LORD WHY CAN’T YOU JUST RELAX!?” place. It’s even better when a parent (mine, someone else’s a friend) says “Oh, she just needs to get over it.” Oh really! That’s all? Thanks for the unwelcome advice a-hole.

    So, what I’m really trying to say is. Thank you. I took the long way around, but I guess that’s why there isn’t a character limit on this thing!

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