‘Our son has tantrums when we go anywhere new’

'Since he was a baby, spending time in new places has been incredibly stressful to him,' says our reader - Isabelle Maroger
'Since he was a baby, spending time in new places has been incredibly stressful to him,' says our reader - Isabelle Maroger

Our five-year-old son has always been an anxious child. He’s happiest at home with us and his older sister, 7, playing with his toy cars and helping me bake. That’s fairly normal, according to friends – he’s little for his age, and finds the rough and tumble of the playground a bit scary, but he has schoolfriends and likes his teacher.

The one thing he can’t cope with is unfamiliarity. Since he was a baby, spending time in new places has been incredibly stressful to him. When we went on holiday to Spain last year, he was just four and was almost sick with fear at the idea of the flight, though he was fine once on it. When we reached the villa we were sharing with friends, he had a full-blown tantrum because he “didn’t like” his bedroom, and he was terrified of the (quite ordinary) fireplace. He was clingy and unhappy all week, and when we came home, it took another week to settle him.

We’ve wondered about having him assessed for autism, but beyond his anxiety, he shows no other signs. He’s a very imaginative child, which builds on his fears – big dogs, the dark and staying overnight in new places.

The problem is, we’ve recently been invited to a dear friend’s wedding. She’s keen for the whole family to come, and it means two nights in a hotel, 300 miles away. Our daughter is excited – she’s going to be a bridesmaid. Normally, my parents would have my son, but they’re on holiday that week, and their house is the only place he’s happy to stay, apart from home. Previous holidays have also been incredibly stressful – as a toddler, he’d always end up sleeping in our bed, and howling because he wanted to be back home.

I’ve even wondered if something traumatic could have happened to him as a baby on one of our annual trips, but despite racking my brains, I can’t think of anything. It seems he’s always been this way.

Knowing his likely reaction, we gently introduced the idea of the trip, explaining that we’ll be with him all the time, he can sleep in our room, and showing him pictures of the hotel, which has a pool and a play area. But upsettingly, the moment we brought it up, he burst into tears, shouting, “I don’t want to go! You can’t make me!”

Obviously, we can, because the alternative is to let my friend – and worse, my daughter – down. But in the days since we told him, he’s been worried sick.

He’s begged us not to go and is crying himself to sleep, despite our best efforts to reassure him.

I hate seeing him so unhappy, and his sister is now upset because his despair is making her feel she shouldn’t be a bridesmaid (of course we’ve told her she should).

The trip is still a fortnight away – we thought we’d give him time to come to terms with it, but it seems we’ve only prolonged the agony. We will go, and we’ll do our best to jolly him along, but when I envisage the future, I can’t see how we can go on like this, with every holiday and visit hostage to his tantrums and misery.

My husband says it can’t go on forever, but I worry he’ll retreat further and further into “safe” places as he grows up.

I suppose if it doesn’t ease, the next step is some kind of therapy to help him deal with his fears. But it’s hard not to feel we’ve failed as parents, when he’s sobbing about going to a wedding – and there’s nothing we can do to comfort him.

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