When I was a little girl, I knew my house was going to burn down. I didn’t just fear it. I knew it. I didn’t know when. I didn’t know how. But I just…knew. And in my young mind, the only thing I could do to prevent it was to think about it. To worry about it. If I worried about it enough, it wouldn’t happen, right?
I had to wait. Just wait. I had to be ready so I could get everyone out of the house in time. At night, that meant that I positioned my bed near my door so I could lie awake and look down the hallway toward the kitchen to see the first licks of flame. During the day, it meant having a stomachache so bad that I had to stay home from school. That way, I was home and could be there to rescue my mother.
What it led to was a loss of appetite and undiagnosed stomach pains that frightened my parents and pediatrician. I was hospitalized for a week while they ran test after test, trying to figure out why I couldn’t eat and why I was constantly complaining of an upset stomach. I was finally diagnosed with a “hyperacid stomach” and handed a bottle of Mylanta®.
I felt like such a fraud. I knew why I was “sick.” I had literally made myself sick with worry. And paralyzing fear. I was 11 years old. Old enough to understand how ridiculous my fears were. Still too young to realize the power of talking to someone about it, no matter how embarrassed I was.
Finally, I found enough courage to confess to my mother, who was wonderful and kind. It was the beginning of my healing. My father later asked me how I was and assured me that, “We can replace anything in this house. That’s why we have insurance.” Which was fine, but it really wasn’t my concern. I was worried about losing my family. I had this horrible image in my mind of me opening my parents’ bedroom door and the two of them lying there as the bed burned. I couldn’t get past it. While the adults in my life really wanted to help me, they didn’t grasp the depth of my anxiety. It was real. It was constant and consuming. I almost felt I could touch it.
It was at that moment I vowed to myself—if ever a child comes to me expressing their fear of something, I will listen. I will get them to talk it all out. I will reassure them and give them tools to cope.
“Children can react to trauma in ways that adults don’t expect,” says Ryan Suhr, Statewide Administrator for Children Services at Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. “Avoidance, anxiety, depression, and acting-out behaviors are just a few. Those behaviors have a function, and it is really up to adults to sort through that and try to understand what is happening.” Suhr goes on to say that a child’s ability to recover from trauma is directly related to the quality of their adult relationships.
What finally brought me a peaceful night’s sleep was talking things out and a spiritual quote that encouraged me to “go to sleep in peace.” It took months, but eventually I could get through a full day—then two—without thinking of my house burning.
Looking back as an adult, I know that I was picking up on subtle signals from my parents’ failing marriage. We had also helped with the recovery for one of my father’s co-workers who lost their home to fire just a few days before Christmas. And I had actually witnessed a mobile home burning a few weeks after that. I can see now how it all added up to a kind of trauma that I wasn’t able to process well.
I share this story because adults can forget how real the bogeyman can be for a child. Even a smart fifth-grader who “should know better.”
There’s much in this world that can frighten a child (or an adult, for that matter), and dismissing or discounting those fears can only make the child feel there’s something wrong with them and doesn’t help his or her recovery. Plus, there may be underlying reasons for unexplained physical ailments in children, especially when they just don’t “feel good” or they have a stomachache. Make sure to consider whether there might be something seriously troubling them and know that love, kindness, and conversation might be the best cure of all.