Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 20, 2009

Don’t Panic! Puke Happens.

My six-year-old son is having some struggles with anxiety and socialization, and just generally feeling “comfortable in his own skin”. Poor guy. We’re trying to help, but it’s going to take some time.

It’s mostly been showing up at mealtimes, at home and at school, as he gets a sort of performance anxiety, about having to deal with other people and their behaviors or expectations, or else deal with various strong smells and physical sensations. (We’re still not sure, really.) We saw it up in Wisconsin twice this weekend (once in a restaurant, then the next day in our cottage). But he didn’t tell us it had been previously happening at school until yesterday, even though it’s been happening for a week or more.

On the ride to school yesterday, almost in passing, he confessed he couldn’t find a seat in the lunchroom by someone he felt safe with, who he knew would accept him and stay out of his personal space and not gross him out. (My words, and his teacher’s… not quite his.) He cries, he refuses any suggestions by the teacher to help solve the problem, and quickly goes to an almost phobic response to the “lunchroom” problem. He also mentioned another classmate gagging next to him early last week, around the time this all started, and that the event keeps popping into his memory.

I’m tempted to feel guilty, like it’s mine and my wife Sue’s fault for NOT providing him with a stronger sense of inner security, a willingness to “fit in”, to relax, to live and let live. But I don’t know how we could have done things much differently than we have, partly because we’re not “put together” perfectly ourselves. We have our own anxieties, that we may have taught him without meaning to. We don’t always fit in, either. Nor do either of us have a completely healthy relationship with food, or with our bodies in general. But we’re getting better, little by little. So now we just have to nip this little problem in the bud with our son, or help equip him to do it for himself.

Plus, when trying to relax and avoid the guilt thing, then I remember, …these kids are six! Most kids have a high tolerance for “gross”, especially boys. Whereas Graham, on the other hand, is pretty sensitive, maybe even rigid (a common “only child” phenomenon). He gets upset sometimes if he feels he can’t control what’s coming at him, or if it’s different than “the usual”.

Also, Sue, and even her father, have suffered from some of that queasy stomach phenomenon — plus a strong reaction to funky smells and a stronger than usual gag reflex — throughout their lives. The psychological stuff crosses over into the physical realm in unique ways for each person. Ulcers happen. Muscle tension, shakes, stutters. Whatever.

Me, I just have an easygoing attitude, like “Hey, puke happens.” But for my family, it’s a much bigger deal. It throws them way off their game. Unfortunately, I forget that, and I sometimes end up hurting Sue (whether it’s the dog getting sick, or Graham, or anyone else… I get too angry over her own freakout, which merely feels unavoidable to her).

So then I got a call from Graham’s teacher later in the day to talk through the problem. We might even involve a pro, the social worker, to be sure Graham feels cared for — and to give him some tactics and tools to deal with his nervous stomach, quick-onset tears, and shyness more effectively. It’s okay to ask for help. That’s another thing we anxious, shame-bound, wounded people tend to forget. He’ll be okay, but this “in between time” is pretty painful, emotionally, for us all.

Meanwhile I’m having similar struggles… not finding it easy to trust anyone, myself included, because my ability to trust God and other people is warped and wounded by my life experience.

And perhaps also because I’m depressed, chemically speaking… which takes some courage and spiritual “confession” to admit. Harder still: to then love myself enough to do something about it, to not dismiss it simply because it is not bad enough to be completely debilitating. So I don’t want to take the drugs, but it appears I’m headed in that direction.

But I will say this: from the perspective of a spiritual mentor like Thomas Merton, I do know that our *desire* to be healthier, to hang in there, to trust God and others, does please God all by itself, and thus puts us on the road to healing. And that knowledge relaxes me, somewhat. It helps me accept my wounded self, and not pile on the judgment. It helps me accept others, warts and all.

By trying again, and not turning from the task of trusting reality, of trusting God’s people in our lives (gross though they may be, or just plain different), we’re already winning an important battle. And lest we forget: Grace happens, too. We need not do it alone.


  1. Oh poor Graham. It is so hard to be a kid sometimes. I thought of Sue’s issues immediately when I read the first few lines of this. I hope you can find a way to help him accept this as just a quirk and not a judgment on his character. Hugs to you all.

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