Zombie Phobia: Do You Have an Anxious Child?

Posted April 20, 2011 by

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Zombie Phobia. Yes, this is what the psychiatrist tells me my son has. Not OCD, as I expected after hours of researching “obsessive thoughts” on the Internet. My son was 11 at the time. He has high levels of anxiety, THAT we knew. This is a child who, I discovered from almost birth, needed to know everything ahead of time. If we went to the store, he needed to know how long we’d be there and what we were getting. If I told him we needed three things and grabbed a fourth, it threw him off-kilter. This is the child who had zero frustration tolerance and would bang his head when frustrated. It did not matter if the only thing to bang his head on was a concrete floor. Yet, through it all, I always seemed to be able to figure him out. He has been in therapy since age 5 and on medication for his anxiety and ADHD.

But Zombie Phobia? What do you do with that? It started subtly, after my mother passed away when he was 9. While having guests in and out of my home for a week, I noticed that every time I went into the bathroom, the shower curtain was open. I felt like I was in a Seinfeld episode- who keeps looking into my bathtub? Where else are they looking? Finally my husband figured it out. It was my son, pulling back the curtain each and every time he went into the bathroom, checking for zombies!

One time I remember seeing a dead cricket behind a cabinet. I vacuumed it up without giving it a second thought. A few days later we had another cricket in the house. He saw it, ran to the cabinet, then yelled ZOMBIE CRICKET!” He was not aware that I had vacuumed the cricket and assumed it  was the dead one! This went on for years, but the bathroom seemed to be the only place he suspected Zombies. When he started Middle School he came home alone after school for the first time. (His older brother got home about 45 minutes later.) I made sure he was ok with this arrangement, prepped him for weeks by letting him stay home for short periods, gave him a key, had phone numbers posted and in his backpack. Three weeks into the school year he stopped going into the house. He would sit on the porch and wait for his brother. I spoke with the doctor several times and we adjusted his medicine to help the anxiety but it did not help. Winter and snow came and still he refused to go into the house alone. The doctor met with him to explain the physiology of death and how it is impossible to come back to life, etc. Nothing worked.

In January, his brother got a cat for his 18th birthday. I wish someone had told me earlier that cats had Zombie-detecting powers! As long as the cat was on the same floor with my son, he was fine. He’d carry the cat to the basement and close the door, or shut the door to keep the cat out of the basement if he wanted to be upstairs. To this day he will not admit that the cat helped alleviate his fears.

I want to share one other incident that comes to mind whenever I try to describe my son’s anxiety. The nurse from his camp called me to pick him up. He was complaining it hurt to walk, and he was almost doubled over. Of course she looked for signs of appendicitis and other things she could think of, like maybe gas. When I got there he was hyperventilating, crying and obviously in pain. A coworker shared a story of a child she knew whose testicles got twisted. Obviously I did not mention this to my son! I drove him directly to the urgent care center where his doctor at the time worked. In the car he continued to cry and he imagined all of the things he could have: cancer, AIDS, emphysema (again this was just after my mother passed away). The doctor did bloodwork and x-rays. She was baffled as to why he was in so much pain. She finally sat him down and asked him to explain step-by-step everything he did all day, starting with getting to camp that morning. Nothing offered any clues and she could find nothing wrong. He was calmer by the time we left and she told me to give him Tylenol. On the way out the door, he says, “Did you know I could put my foot behind my head? I did it on the bus this morning!”  Mystery solved — he had pulled a groin muscle!!

I’d love to hear from other parents about the bizarre situations they find themselves in when they have anxious children.


I am a mom of two boys, ages 16 and 22, both with ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. I have remarried and my husband has 2 boys, ages 13 and 16. The 13 year old lives with us, and has some behavioral problems and attachment issues. There is always something happening at our house!

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  1. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To “kurtsmom”: Thank you for sharing your story. It’s not unusual for some kids to need additional support at the beginning of the school year or to take a little bit more time to warm up to new situations. Some children are just naturally shy and will be less likely to want to play in large groups. It can be heartbreaking to watch our children struggle. Being able to work through a struggle and come out OK on the other side is an important part of developing good problem-solving skills. You’re doing an excellent job working through some of these struggles by talking with him about them. It may be beneficial to allow him to work through some struggles on his own when the situation warrants. Here is a great article on helping your child develop better problem-solving skills: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems.” If you are truly concerned there may be social delays or other issues, we would recommend speaking with his pediatrician. His doctor would be in a better position to determine whether or not his behavior is outside the norm and would be able to discuss possible ways of addressing it. We wish you and your family the best. Take care.

  2. kurtsmom Report

    My son is 5 and for as long as I can remember he has “something”. My mom says its his personality. For the first month and a half od preschool I had to sit w/him reasure him I would be back. Finially, he was okay with me leaving. Now he has started kindergarden and the same thing is happening. I have to walk him to his classroom. Ive tried walking him to the enterance doors. Nope. We have spoke and watched the other children walk into the school, some of his class mates offer to walk together. Nope.In the am we will walk to the bus stop and play among the other children but when the bus comes he runs home. But he takes the bus home fine.Hes the only child and has a good relationship with mom and dad, but he prefers mom. He’s also afraid to go to the bathroom by himself.AND by 5am hes in our bed. When we go to the park and thers alot of kids, he will wait til some leave before he joins in. He’ll just watch. I feel bad that he can be so shy and takes long for him to warm up. Any suggestions?? Do u think I baby him too much?? Then he starts to get upset and breaks my hart. Do u think theres something wrong socialy??

  3. carnationcrab Report

    sadmom: I cannot help but think that you are anything but wrong about mental illness negating every other quality. I have manic depressive, OCD, and ADHD, and I am 17. I live a normal life with the help of therapy. When given the support necessary, someone with mental illnesses can still be a happy and have good qualities.

  4. sadmom Report

    My daughter was diagnosed with anxiety depression at sixteen but had been anxious her whole life and continues so. She has been on anti-depressants since her diagnosis and her personality has changed. The positive is that she can live a “normal” life but I have lost my beautiful daughter. I believe hers to be a genetic illness as her father’s family has a lot of depressive illnesses. Looking back, even as a baby there was something unsettled about her and as a toddler she was happiest when alone sucking her thumb. Although taking a healthy diet she suffered dreadful constipation which I think was directly linked to her anxiety and her schooldays were a lonely hell for her and heartbreaking for me. I hope my daughter decides not to have children as the chances of her having a child with the same debilitating illness are huge. I say this on the basis of her Dad’s family history. He too suffers though in a different way from severe anxiety. I have seen this illness blight my daughter’s life. She has few friends, her education was ruined because of her mental state although she is a very intelligent and hard working girl. She is in a relationship with a young man who is completely unsuitable and does not treat her well and she is now living with him. I dare not think of what the future holds for her. Mental illness is the worst affliction anyone can have because it negates every other quality the person has. God help anyone who suffers from it and their families.

  5. Magmoo Report

    My son wouldn’t go to bed at night. There were monsters in the closet. We got “Monster Away” spray, aka water bottle with water in it. It worked for awhile. Then I thought I’d try a little prayer (or spell). It helped me when I was little and afraid of the dark. Imagine a white light around you. It feels happy, peaceful, calm and good. Only good things can come in and all bad things must stay out. It’s a shield of protection around you. It’s a bubble of happy good things. No need to be scared. Those things can’t get in. You are surrounded by only goodness. The whole family is within the soft bright light. Cozy good feelings are inside, etc. Add in your religious overtones if you want and add family members and pet names. Talk soothingly, softly, slowly, calmly. Teach him to add his own words to the mental images so he can soothe himself.
    As an adolescent we went to counseling to learn about worry bullies on his shoulder that were telling him scary things. He learned to tell off the worry bully. Now I try to work on his errors in thinking as they come up.

    We went through many tantrums and angry bursts over the years. We still sometimes do. It’s especially difficult for my ex to see that my son’s anger is really anxiety to the max. It is indeed so hard to stay calm and not get sucked in to his whirlwind of fear. We used to tell him to “drop your leaves to the ground!” He would stop and shake his body out. It helped.

  6. Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor Report

    To ‘sli’: Kids’ fears can often seem very baffling and irrational. It could be helpful to talk to your daughter about her fears. For example, what kinds of thoughts does she have when there are bees outside? Challenge any faulty thinking and help her come up with one thing she can do differently to help herself go outside when there are bees out there. For example, if she is certain she will be stung, you could say that there actually is not a very good likelihood of getting stung and maybe identify a certain area of the yard she could play in, perhaps away from any flowering plants. Continue to be supportive and calm, gently challenge faulty thinking, and put a very strong emphasis on problem solving. Anyone whose children appear fearful or anxious should keep in mind that if the fear or anxiety seems to be out of control, and if it seems to interfere with your child’s academic or social functioning, or ability to function at home, that’s when you should talk to your pediatrician and get some additional support. I am including James Lehman’s anxiety articles for more information and suggestions: Freaked Out Part I: Understanding Kids with Anxiety and Freaked Out Part II: How to Help Kids Manage Their Anxiety. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

  7. Emmie Report

    I think when kids have anxieties there is no rhyme or reason to it! They have it in their head and then whatever works is what works even if it makes no sense to anyone else. My son is also terrified of bees and will not go out the front door if they are out there (for some reason they love our flag pole!). My dr told me he has a patient who will not be alone in any room, but is ok as long as his 3 year old sister is with him. It’s not like the 3 year old can protect him! Go figure…

  8. Sli Report

    Very interesting! It sounds so much like my daughter(12). She will not go anywhere in the house without someone being with her. Even during the day, she will need to ask someone to go along with her even to the bathroom. As long as someone goes along, mostly asks her little sister, but she seems better! Every once in a while, I notice that she will go on her own, but the second anyone says anything…she comes running back in a panic. So I make sure that NOBODY says anything to her or anyone else while her mind and body is going to a different room on her own! She’s facing her own fears, but just very puzzling because I’m not sure what it is about! Another thing that I am puzzled about is that when she is outside…she will walk around by herself…so what is the difference?? When she does go outside, she’s either listening to music and dancing or looking for friends to play with. But when it’s summertime and if she sees bees, then she won’t go out at all!! UGH! Any thoughts?

  9. tyler1 Report

    My 12 yr old son sleeps on the master bedroom floor & won’t sleep in his room. Extra vigilant & any noise he hears at night means having to explain to him the normal creaks in a house. He turns on all the lights when going from room to room & won’t turn them off when exiting the rooms. Dr just upped his Abilify dosage so hopefully this will help. Apparently all this anxiety is due to violence in video games & on TV. He was a video game junkie. All violent games & programs are now BANNED from our house.



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