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Q: My five-year-old son was so nervous on the first day of kindergarten that he threw up shortly after getting there. Since then, he’s been crying every morning about having to ride the bus. He cries on the way to the bus stop, cries while he’s waiting, and I have to literally push him on it when it arrives. At least one morning a week I’ve given in and driven him to school. Each time he promises that if I’ll take him “just one more time,” he’ll willingly ride the bus from then on. Needless to say, his promises are empty. When I ask him what he’s afraid of, 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’s manipulating me. What do you think?

A: The idea that children manipulate their parents has been vastly over blown. It implies a mental maturity and more importantly, an ability to analyze human behavior that five-year-old children do not possess and won’t possess for several years to come.

Your son isn’t trying to manipulate you in the sense of conspiring against you. He is really scared. However, 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.

The second kind of “really scared ”involves either (a) a fear of something that has never happened and has little to no chance of ever happening or, (b) a vague, undefined fear that the child can’t put into words. I’m reasonably certain your son’s fear falls under “b.” He’s obviously not afraid of school itself, or the teacher would see evidence of it in the classroom. The bus driver could also probably tell you that he calms down by the time the bus reaches the next stop.

I’m sure you’ve said and done everything you can to solve this problem. Now it’s your son’s turn. In fact, he is the only person who can solve this problem and believe me, an otherwise emotionally healthy five-year-old is completely capable of bringing a fear of this sort under control.

Tell your son that he simply must ride the bus every morning. 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’s 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 too should pass within a relatively short period of time.

Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, call Elizabeth Stevens at (919) 403-8712.

Living With Children

by John Rosemond
From the September 2007 Signs