Claustrophia & kids?
April 26, 2009 2:44 PM   Subscribe

Claustrophobia-filter. We've been looking into the adult-onset claustrophobia my wife has started to experience (and found very relevant pointers in this earlier AskMe). Now, our eight-year-old son has recently had a couple of similar moments. How to nip this in the bud for both?

My wife had an earlier aversion to strong winds due to a few adolescent years of monsoons in Manila, and, since pregnancy, infrequently recurring episodes of waking up panicked in the dark (any low light left on is enough to avoid this happening; generally we joke about this deriving from her having been closed for punishment in a dark closet once when she was a child). Years ago, in a visit to some underground tunnels in Turkey, she panicked "claustrophobically" for the first time, and not really much since then - up until recently. Now, other confined/crowded situations (small planes, full elevators, etc.) can fairly easily cause her panic attacks. She's looking for ways to come to terms with it, and hopefully ward it off, as far as that's possible.

With the exception of a recent family plane trip, it's never really been much of a topic with the kids; during the trip we had her sit up front alone, and I don't think the kids caught too much of the anxiety that she had to face down for a couple of hours. So it came as something of a surprise when our oldest recently panicked - on a ski-lift, of all places.

He was with the instructor, his six-year-old brother and two other kids on an open four-seater lift - which stalled in mid-journey. At first the kids all joked about the situation, then, as the instructor later told us, J little by little panicked, until he was screaming to get off. When we talked about it afterwards, he explained that he'd become concerned they'd be stuck up there forever and nobody would be able to come and rescue them. An afternoon off was enough for him to overcome the episode, and continue taking skilifts with no particular concern for the rest of the week.
Then recently, back in the city, during a three-floor ride down in a slow, old elevator, he began shivering, and we managed to escape just before he lost it. And today, after a first crowded bus-ride that had no noticeable effect on him, a second crowded bus-ride was aborted at the first stop, due to his calm but firm observation that he needed to get off. (Talking about it later during the long walk home, he said it felt to him there wasn't enough air to breathe on the bus.)

It's conceivable that we've abetted some anxieties (an explanation for why they can't take elevators alone was often: what would happen if you get stuck?), and there's been a certain amount of anxiety in the air here (we live in Rome) since the recent Abruzzo earthquake (though the skilift incident predates that) - but this sort of fairly focused panicking in a child is not something we would really have expected. J is an imaginative, speculative/scientific sort; I can picture him painting himself scenarios that might go too far, and he's been pinpointing more fears of his recently than he used to, but these incidents have felt a little different than the typical childhood scares we'd witnessed so far.

So, advice for either or both is welcome. I haven't scoured the internets about this yet, and guessed there might be some thoughtful opinions to be had here.
posted by progosk to Health & Fitness (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The short answer is cognitive behavioral therapy. But I hate when ppl always just recommend a shrink. There are probably some workbooks and videos that would help.
It would be something like systematic desensitization perhaps...
Steer away from any 'flooding' techniques.
Hope this reply doesn't come off as glib.
posted by dawson at 3:17 PM on April 26, 2009

Actually it sounds more like what I have, which is cleisiophobia... a fear of being locked in an enclosed place. I am not at all claustrophobic unless I can't get out. So, I'm fine on elevators, but if an elevator were to stall and I was stuck in there for hours, I'd freak out. And probably on the ski lift too. I think this might be it because you've said your son is sometimes okay... that first bus ride, being able to ride the ski lifts with no problem after a day off.

As for things like riding the bus, can you make him feel like there's a definite time frame when he'll be getting off the bus? For example, when the ski lift wasn't broken, he knew that at the end of the ski lift he'd get off. Can he wear a watch and have a bus schedule to check the time of arrival at your destination? You can make it his "job" to inform the family if the bus is running on time by checking the time at each stop.

Also, if your elevator has emergency phones in case it gets stuck, perhaps showing them to him and talking about what to do if he gets stuck could help.
posted by IndigoRain at 4:29 PM on April 26, 2009

Respectfully, your son is overidentifying with his mom. There's no such thing as the kids not catching the anxiety if she is in the grips of claustrophobia, and it seems as though it is a topic you discuss in front of them. I like IndigoRain's behavorial suggestions a lot, and think you should come up with more structured activities for your boy to occupy himself with during 'close' times. Also, I think you should tell him his Mum has a problem -- not quite a sickness but something like being sick -- and that she is working on getting better, and that it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with him. Don't mention his own events -- just give him permission to stop identifying with her. Good luck!!
posted by thinkpiece at 5:21 PM on April 26, 2009

Best answer: Your son has developed the impression that he has to rescue himself from scary situations. He is afraid because he has no idea how to do it. Tell your son he has nothing to worry about because you will always be there to take care of him. Repeat, you will take care of him. Repeat this as many times as necessary. Tell him he is a child so he does not have to do anything. You may feel you are lying to him. He's eight and this is perfectly OK because he really needs to feel safe.

If he were stuck somewhere, you would be there. You would come and rescue him. You would crawl over gravel and glass to get to him. He should not worry, because taking care of him is your responsibility.

He will come up with lots of ideas about things that could happen. No matter what he says (spaceship hits earth, aliens attack) tell him you will be there. He might say, I'm in the elevator, you're a plane ride away. You tell him that you call the police, get on the plane and the pilot flies at light speed, and you parachute onto the roof of the building to get to him. The conversations will actually be fun.

My kids were anxious at different times. This is a recurring theme with kids. The above works. In any situation they come up with, tell them affirmatively that you will find your way to their side.
posted by inkyr2 at 10:21 PM on April 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

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