Child Caring

Has Mom's Fear of Germs Infected Her Son?

Hi Barbara,

As a mom, I obviously feel it's my job to keep my kids safe...I make sure they look both ways before crossing the street, wear helmets, etc. I feel I am continuously reminding them about these things, trying to keep them safe and trying to teach them how to keep themselves safe. My efforts have extended to germs/illness prevention and I've stressed hand-washing quite a bit. I taught my kids to use a paper to open the bathroom door after they use the restroom, not touch trash and make sure they use hand sanitizer at the doctorís office. I donít think Iíve taken things too far but my husband does....

The issue is that my 9 year old son has suddenly developed a germ-phobia. We recently went to a petting zoo and my son refused to touch the animals and acted as though he would get sick if he touched them. I tried reasoning with him and then coerced him to pet one of them just to prove to him that it was okay. It ended up not being one of my best parenting moments and caused my son quite a bit of anxiety. I just didnít know what else to do. My husband blames me and itís causing a lot of stress in our household. I waiver between thinking my son has OCD to thinking this is just a phase and my sonís reaction to processing some of the realities of life.

What are your thoughts? How can I help my son temper this fear and his reactions to germs?

Thank you so much,

From: OCD Mom? Boston

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Dear OCD Mom?

I certainly am not going to throw labels around (nor should you, re: yourself or your son), but I am going to agree with your husband that you've carried this too far. Fears/phobias are typically a combination of inherited tendencies as well as learned behaviors. It may be that your son comes by some of the behaviors naturally, but I would argue that you have reinforced his tendencies through your actions. What we do as parents is as important as what we say. If, for instance, you insist he wear a bike helmet and then don't wear one yourself, you send a mixed message. You aren't sending mixed messages. The message you are sending -- loudly and clearly -- is that the world is a dangerous, germ-ridden place that is not safe without vigilance and constant precautions.

My suggestions:

Deal with your own issues first. Try to ramp your precautions down in a way that you can handle so that you will demonstrate, through your behavior, that some precautions can be discarded now that he is old enough to be able to make some judgements on his own. Think out loud in front of him sometimes, for instance, as you're about to take an unnecessary precaution, mutter to yourself: "You know, I'm over-reacting here. I can back down."

Have a conversation about this as a family, so that your husband is involved, too; if there's stress in the family and dad has been openly critical of you, it's really important for kids to see that both parents are on the same page. Tell them that when they were little, you took your job of keeping them safe very seriously and you modeled behaviors you wanted them to emulate. Now that they (or he) is older, together you can begin to weigh -- in an intellectual way -- which safety measures are necessary; which ones are optional depending on circumstance that he can judge; and which ones he has outgrown. Make a list. Decide together. By giving him permission to make decisions on his own, you are also feeding into where he is developmentally; it will make him feel more grown up to know that you trust his judgement.

One particularly important reason to do this now is so he doesn't get teased in school. How many boys/men do you know who use paper to open the door in a public bathroom? That may be a good precaution in really grungy places. As a routine behavior? Probably not. Not touching trash? Who touches trash anyway? We talking household trash or public trash? Make some distinctions. Do you wear latex gloves to empty wastebaskets? To open the mail? These are behaviors I would describe as extreme.