- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

My 5-year-old son was so nervous on the first day of kindergarten that he threw up shortly after getting there. Since then, he has been crying every morning about having to ride the bus that many of his classmates also ride. He cries on the way to the bus stop, cries while he’s waiting, and I almost have to push him on the bus when it arrives.

I have to admit that at least one morning a week I have given in and driven him to school. Each time I do, he promises me that if I’ll take him “just one more time,” he will ride the bus willingly from then on. Needless to say, his promises are empty.

When I ask him what scares him, he can’t tell me, and his teacher says he’s fine by the time he gets to school. A counselor friend of mine says my son is manipulating me. What do you think?

A: The idea that children manipulate their parents has been vastly overblown. It implies a mental maturity, and more important, an ability to analyze human behavior that 5-year-old children do not possess and won’t possess for, at best, several years. No, a young child who is crying every morning about riding the bus to school isn’t trying to manipulate — as in conspiring against one’s parents with forethought. He’s genuinely upset.

Your son is really scared, but there are two kinds of really scared. In the first, the child is afraid of an event that has happened or might well happen. Your son’s fear would fall into this category if, for example, the bus had been struck by a truck and turned on its side the first morning he rode it. In this case, his fear would be reality-based and would merit some protective action on your part.

(Tangent: Do you know that the government seat-belt law, especially as it pertains to children, can be ignored legally only by the government, as on school buses? I encourage my readers to put pressure on local schools to install seat belts, with shoulder harnesses, in school buses.)

The second kind of really scared involves either a fear of something that has never happened and has a slim-to-none chance of ever happening or a vague, undefined feeling of fear that the child can’t put in words (i.e., “I’m just afraid”).

Based on your description, I’m reasonably certain your son’s fear falls under the second example. He obviously is not afraid of school itself or the teacher would be seeing evidence of that in the classroom. If he hasn’t already, the bus driver probably will tell you your son calms down by the time the bus reaches the next stop.

I’m sure you have said everything you possibly can say to your son about his fear. You have done what you can to help solve the problem; now it’s his turn. In fact, your son is the only person who can solve this problem, and believe me, an otherwise emotionally healthy 5-year-old is completely capable of bringing a fear of this sort under control.

Tell your son he simply must ride the bus every morning. Say you’ll continue to walk him to the bus stop (which you should do regardless) and wait with him until the bus arrives, but you will not drive him to school again, period.

Assure him that it’s all right to cry and give him full permission to do so. Tell him that sometimes crying helps people get over fears of this sort. Don’t promise him anything special if he doesn’t cry, and don’t make a big deal of it the first morning he is successful at “sucking it up.” On that auspicious day, just tell him you’re proud of him and let that be it. After all, getting on the bus without tears is no big deal.

If your son sees firm resolve on your part concerning this matter, this should pass within a relatively short period of time.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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