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Terrified of Teacher

My son is terrified of his teacher. She is a wonderful lady who is a favorite teacher in his school. The only thing I can figure out from talking with him is that he is afraid because she is loud, and we are a pretty quiet family -- most days. We went to the "Welcome back to school, mandatory meeting" and he hid behind a file cabinet! What should I do?

Signed, Pay-No-Attention-to-that-Boy-Behind-the-File-Cabinet

Dear Pay-No-Attention, 

Without knowing more about your son, it’s hard to give advice--but I won’t let that stop me. If the little guy’s old enough to talk, you might start by asking him what his loud teacher’s voice sounds like: 

“Is it like a duck quacking . . . ?" No? 

“Is it like a door slamming . . . ?” No? 

“Hmmm. . . Is it like when Grandma drank too much and hugged you too hard?” 

Usually, if you ask silly enough questions—especially if you accompany each question with sound effects and gestures—most kids can’t resist jumping in to help you out. That way, you start to get information, and it feels like you’re playing a game, instead of conducting an interrogation.

When our daughter Molly was little, whenever we wanted to know something she either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us, we used some variation of this technique. We’d often start by asking silly questions, and work our way into telling a story that involved a child who bore some resemblance to her in a situation not too far different from her own. Along the way, the characters in the story would develop supernatural powers or obnoxious personality traits Molly supplied herself. Little by little, we would steer the story in a direction that might reveal how she was feeling, or might suggest ways to overcome her fears or discomfort. 

In the situation with your son, you might tell him a story about “an amazing little boy who had a teacher with a REALLY LOUD VOICE.” With a 5-year-old it might sound like this: 

“Once upon a time there lived an amazing little boy who liked great big trucks . . . His name was . . . hmmm. . . I can’t remember his name. It was . . . ? “ 

At this point, you might stroke your chin, scrunch your face, and wait for your son to jump in. Often, a child will offer his own name, or the name of his favorite super-hero of the day. 

As you continue with your story, you can weave in bits of information or more questions: 

“And one day, while Billy was at school, his teacher—the lady with the REALLY LOUD VOICE—did something strange. She started to talk, but suddenly . . . “ 

And then you wait. If your son doesn’t volunteer something, you continue: 

“She lost her voice. She opened her mouth to speak, but instead of words . . . frogs hopped out!”

 From time to time, it’s nice to pause and pretend you’ve lost your place, or are searching for a name or bit of information only your child can provide. That way, you both shape the story, and you learn by his choices what’s on his mind.

Usually, by the end of the story, you’ll know how your child’s feeling, even though he may not have told you directly. We noticed with our daughter that the process of weaving tales together around a troubling issue was healing all by itself. Good luck to you and your little tadpole, Betsy

Copyright reserved by author.

Betsy Sansby is a licensed marriage & family therapist whose private practice is in her home near Minneapolis. Betsy is the coauthor—with her husband--of seven books, and has just produced an ingenious communication tool for couples called: The OuchKit: A First-Aid Kit for Your Relationship. Clients who have used the kit describe it as: “Couples Therapy in a Box.” For more information go to: Send Betsy an email, with your question. 

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