Forget the ‘Terrible Twos’… I think it should be called the ‘Terrible Threes’… But anyway, this post is not about anything terrible, but more about how terrified a young child can get over what seems to be nothing. I had Margo at this huge playground today, it’s like the most gigantic playground you could ever imagine. As she was wondering around and checking out all the things to play with, the thought struck me that, ‘Hey, she’s not scared of everything anymore!’.
From right around the time she turned 2, up until just a couple months ago, Margo seemed to be terrified of a lot of thing. Dogs were her biggest nightmare. She was so fearful of dogs, that if she even just saw one in the distance, she would literally climb up my leg and jump into my arms, then ask me a million times if it was on a rope, just to make sure it couldn’t get her. She went through a weird phase of being scared of the moon, saying that it was going to fall down. The vacuum, fireworks, the blender (well, those are obvious because they’re really loud). The ocean, birds on the balcony, geckos on the wall, even sometimes good friends whom she had been waiting all day to see. All of those things, she was terrified of. And, you can forget about any live music or anything having to do with a stage or performance. Most adults, would have wanted to just saying, ‘Oh, don’t be silly, Margo, there’s nothing to be scared of.’ But, I could see the fear in her eyes and her whole body was overtaken by an intense urge to ‘get the hell out away from‘ whatever we were doing. So, I maybe told her a few times that she was being silly, and then I stopped because I could see that she was, indeed, NOT joking about her fears.
Like I said, the first few times I saw her acting so scared, I tried to reason with her and explain how everything was ok, etc. I couldn’t understand where her fears were coming from! Here I am, Miss. Attachment Parent, and my kid is the most scared kid on the block. I mean, I had always worn her in a baby carrier, she slept in our bed, never alone in another room, she was breastfed and we used gentle parenting techniques, no smacking, etc. So, I was quite frustrated when my ‘attachment kid‘ all of a sudden had some serious insecurities. I could see that reasoning with her when she was scared of something was completely useless. There was NO reasoning to be done, she was terrified and that was that. So, after the reasoning failed, the next thing I started to do was to simply remove her from the situation. Remove her immediately, if possible.
Removing her from the situation was very simple on her behalf, and solved the problem instantly… BUT for me, the adult, it was really frustrating because of course, I wanted to continue with what we were doing, I didn’t want to go cowardly running away. I also had some doubt in my mind, that maybe what I was doing was going to turn her into a wimp. Like, if I always removed her from the situation, that she would never have to ‘learn‘ to deal with unpleasant situations… Oh, not true, not true!
So, dealing with this scared 2 year old was probably more of a lesson in surrender on MY end than anything else. To Margo, she was very happy when removed from an unpleasant situation. And, since she’s a kid and so in the present moment, she didn’t hang onto the fear for too long. As soon as she was removed from the situations, she was happy to continue with her day, whereas I was the one who was still reeling over the fact that we didn’t get to do what I had intended to do.
In hindsight, I can see now, that removing her from a terrifying situation actually improved her coping ability in a fearful situation. Like, she would have the ‘terrifying exposure‘ of whatever dog or moon, etc., and then I would take her away. Once away from the situation, she could digest it (and not always with me talking and explaining). The next time she encountered the similar situation again, I could see that she was much much better at dealing with it. She also felt that she could trust me and that I wouldn’t force her to do something that she wasn’t ready to do. I never tried to bribe her to be more brave either (if that’s even possible). By just letting her take the lead and let me know when she was ready to try something out, I found it so much easier for me! Then, there was like, zero effort involved! Hooray to effortless and effective parenting!
Of course, there are times when you absolutely cannot get out of terrifying situation… Then, there will probably be some tears and some emotions. But, I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing either. Ok, I can’t think of a specific example where I haven’t been able to remove Margo from a terrifying situation, but we have certainly had it happen before. The best thing I found myself doing was to just stay calm, myself, even if she was crying and carrying on. I could explain what was happening, validate the fear (not making them feel stupid for feeling that way) and just do what needs to be done. Sometimes, I can give her a quick example of how I used to feel in those situations when I was a kid, so I say, ‘oh yes, when I was a kid, that used to scare me too, I know what you mean‘. And, that can make her feel a lot better.
As the intense fear of things has been slowly subsiding over the past few months, what I can see now is this super confident little three year old! She boldly talks to people in the shops, telling them this and that, plays on the playgrounds toys (like climbing ropes and the sort) that I would have been terrified, myself ,to go on when I was a kid! She tells me that she wants to have a dog one day in her house! She plays hide and seek with daddy (even though it’s really scary when he yells out ‘rahhh’ when she finds him), she even goes in the ocean! I’m so glad that all I had to do was just sit back and listen to her needs. There was no ‘coping strategy‘ or ‘tricks‘ needed to help her overcome her fears, other than to just listen to what she was telling me. Those moments when she was scared, she was saying to me, ‘look mom, this is really not cool right now, get me out of here, don’t push me to do things I’m not ready for, and I’ll be alright, thank you very much‘.
I’m not saying that you should never push a child to do things… sometimes you really have to give them a little light under their bottom. Dealing with a child (or anyone for that matter), has to be done skillfully and there is no ‘one size fits all‘ plan for any given situation. But, I think when you’re dealing with a toddler or young child, who may not be able to express themselves fully in words, and they are in a fearful situation, there is really one very easy way to solve the problem. By removing them from the situation and listening to their concerns, you not only have a winning situation for the child, but it improves your overall relationship with them.
When I started listening to Margo’s fears (no matter how silly they may have seemed) it made her feel that I understood where she was coming from and that her feelings were not ‘stupid’, but rather, worthy of my attention. I found that by addressing her problems as ‘real‘ issues rather than silly nonsense, she was able to cope and process much faster than if I had kept on pushing her. The real hard part was for me to put aside my ‘plans‘ and just accept that there was a little person whose needs and concerns were just as real and important as my own. Only, me being an adult, I can cope much easier with a change in my plans than a two year old can!