The Prata Boy has long had a problem with strangers. When he was a baby, it manifested itself in screaming when someone took him from me - even, at times, his own father. As a preschooler it manifests in shrieking at people whenever they glance his way.

"Don't look at me!" he screams, pointing an accusing finger at the offender. Then he supplies them - at similar volume - with an exhaustive list of the people who are allowed to look at him. It's quite embarrassing.

When he was younger, I tried to supportively acknowledge his feelings, and give him alternative ways to react. "You could cover your eyes and look away," I suggested once, to his apparent agreement.Ten seconds later someone looked at him and he screamed, "Hey! Cover your eyes and look away!"


Also? Sometimes he hits or kicks at them. (He doesn't tend to connect - it is a warning only, like a dog baring his teeth.) And? He has the same reaction when somebody looks at his sister, even though she, herself, doesn't mind. Woe betide anybody touch her.


I've got to admit, it is tough for him. He gets looked at way more than a lot of four-year-olds. For a start, people coo over young children in this country more than they do in The Old one. And although caucasians aren't exactly rare around here, we're definitely not the majority, so there's a touch of novelty about him. Then there's the old Chinese superstition that rubbing "golden" hair will bring wealth and prosperity. It persists amongst the older generation. ("Don't pat my head! I am not a dog!" he screamed at a kindly old grandmother when he was three years old. The woman didn't speak English, but she sure spoke Angry Toddler and she was definitely taken aback with what she heard.) So I feel for him, because it's tough enough being a shy kid without being in the spotlight every time you leave the house.

As he grows older, however, his actions not only become less excusable, but my tactics begin to look more and more futile. Lately, his ability to decode and express his feelings has become more sophisticated, so I decided to take it right back to square one to see if there was anything new he could tell me.

"Why do you yell at people to stop looking at you?" I asked, once again.

"Because I don't like it," he answered, as usual. But I persisted (again), hoping for something more.

"Why don't you like it?"

"Because I only want you and Dad and..."

"Yes, I know, but why only those people? How do you feel when people look at you?"

"Not good."

"Not good how? In what way? Describe the feeling to me." This time he paused, and I could tell he was digging as deep as he could, trying to explain himself so I could finally understand. I hoped, this time, he could find the words.

"I feel threatened."

"You feel threatened?" I wasn't expecting that. "Why threatened?"

"I think they're going to take me away from you."

I was stunned. "Why?"

"Because they're looking at me."

"Well, yes, but... where did you get the idea that people who look at you might take you away?" He paused again, and I let him think.

"I don't know," he said finally.

"You can't remember? Not at all?" He thought again.


"I think I do. Want to hear my idea?" He did. In addition to patting golden-haired children on the head, locals like to joke that they're going to steal your offspring. 'Oh, so cute!' they'll gush. 'Come, I bring you my house. Say, 'Bye bye, Mummy!' You come stay with me.' It's supposed to be a compliment. Sometimes, with SB, they offer PB an exchange - a lolly, maybe, or a small toy. 'I give you candy, you give me your baby sister, can?' Apparently PB has never seen the humour in this.

And you know, up til now I've been basing my actions on this idea that what he feels is completely ok to feel. It's a popular assumption in Western culture, after all - almost heretical to infer otherwise. But as I digested this new information, it struck me: I am totally not ok with him feeling like this. I don't just want to change the way he expresses himself - I want to change what he has to express. The trouble is, I'm pretty certain this fear of being stolen is just the skin of the bogeyman. He's shy - social interaction wears him out, causes him stress - and he's (presumably) taken this joke and constructed a fear of kidnapping around it. How do you make a shy person un-shy?

Conventional wisdom tells us this sort of change can only come from within. People say, "He has to want to change," as if that dismisses the responsibility from anyone around him, and places it squarely within his power. My experiences with infertility have taught me otherwise. I now know that wanting to change is simply one step on the path to healing - one you can be guided towards, though not via a shortcut. One you may have trouble finding on your own.

I thought hard. What comes before wanting to heal? According to this post, it is whining, and moaning, and crying, and getting depressed, and feeding a highly-developed ability to stress over things which are a) unlikely to happen and b) not under one's control anyway. What brought me from there forward? Well - it was you. It was the type of useful, constructive validation that allows one to take stock and gather perspective.

"Well, you know," I found myself saying to PB, "there really are nasty people out there who steal kids away." I've got to admit - from a certain angle, confirming to a kid who is afraid of being stolen that this kind of thing actually really happens seemed a bit counter-intuitive. PB looked at me seriously.

"What do they do with them?" he wanted to know. And I spared the goriest details, but there was certainly enough left to keep any four-year-old up at night. Eventually, I felt I'd answered all his questions to the best of my abilities, and we sat for a moment in silence.

"Maybe what we need," I suggested eventually, "is a plan to reduce your risk of getting taken by strangers." PB readily agreed. "Well, let's look at what we know about kids who get kidnapped by strangers, and kids who almost get kidnapped, but get away." And we examined the two groups closely, looking for commonalities and differences. And what we decided, in the end, is that PB should spend as much time as possible interacting with strangers (under my supervision, of course) because this way he will build up the kind of tacit knowledge about normal social interactions that you need before you can get that "funny feeling" when someone is acting suspiciously, but you can't quite put your finger on how.

He agreed to the plan. I don't believe it's going to change him from an introvert into an extrovert, but I'm hoping it'll motivate him to overcome his fear of strangers (starting with the aggressive displays) and allow him to practice to the point where he no longer finds interactions hugely stressful. And at that point, the bogeyman will finally be dispelled.


HereWeGoAJen said...

That sounds like a brilliant plan. I hope it works!

Elizabeth has never liked strangers either. It's one of the disadvantages of having super cute kids, isn't it, that they get lots of attention from strangers. She's always being touched by strangers too and even though she's starting to get used to it, she used to HATE it.

Ellen K. said...

Good plan, and good observation on Western assumptions against pushing kids out of their comfort zone. I don't want to scare my kids deliberately, but they have to learn that not everything is one way or the other -- the known is good, the unknown is bad. I tend to be a cop-out kind of person myself, and it's not my best quality.

N. is a pants-off kind of girl. She's also a bolter, so not an ideal combination. At some point recently, I flatly told her that she needs to wear pants outside because (1) some people are creepy and might take her picture or try to hurt her or take her away and (2) when growing-up kids run around outside half-dressed, it makes mommy and daddy look like parents who don't take good care of their kids. It was bluntly worded and immediately effective.

Vee said...

It's great that you got that info out of PB and he could it express it to you. Your plan sounds like a great one. Good Luck!

Barb said...

I somehow lost you! So happy to find you again! I think you're doing a wonderful job. And what a smart boy. I feel that E would have much the same reactions as he in similar circumstances. It can be hard having a sensitive, introverted child, but oh the rewards! And I agree you can't change basic personality... Just what you do with it. I read The Highly Sensitive Child to get some perspective. Very helpful.

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