Anxiety. It’s been a long journey. And we’re not at anywhere resembling a final destination. But we’re not where we started. We’ve been through a few stations, got stuck in a few tunnels, visited the buffet car, and seen some views.
When my son was 3-years old he found conversations with relatives unnerving. When he was 4, he found saying goodbye at pre-school tricky. When he was 5, he found birthday parties without me impossible. At 6, he found going upstairs on his own a no-go. Now he’s 8, he’s scared of the dark.
But he can go to the toilet by himself now.
There was a time, possibly for a year, when he couldn’t go to the toilet by himself, because it was upstairs … or downstairs. We live in a tall house. He didn’t need us in the bathroom, he just needed us to get him from one floor to another. It went from surprising, to worrying, to irritating, and after a while, it became exhausting.
At one point I twigged, I was going to need to DO something. This wasn’t going anywhere on it’s own.
A few years earlier I had stopped using rewards to encourage good behaviour, there seemed to be very good lines of reasoning around why rewards and punishments were not effective in the long term. But I was out of ideas; I tried it. And it worked.
If I offered a strawberry, a sticker, or a 2-pence piece he could run up and down the stairs to the bathroom without me. We congratulated, praised, and celebrated with him.
But the next week, he still couldn’t do it.
After a while I asked him, “Why can you do it for a strawberry?” He thought and answered “I focus on the strawberry entirely; I don’t let anything else in.” How exhausting for him.
Another time, he was playing with Lego in his bedroom. I left the room to go put some washing on, and then came back, he was still playing quietly. Ordinarily he would have called and called for me, sounding terrified, or he’d have to come with me. Thinking we’d cracked it I excitedly asked, “Why could you be here without me this time?” He said “I didn’t look up, I pretended you were still there. As long as I didn’t look up, I was ok.”
I felt I had tried everything. We had tried encouraging; reasoning; rewarding; going with him every time, thinking that this phase would pass; and to my shame, threatening and shouting.
The feeling of helplessness had led me once to just shouting at him. Not my proudest moment. Not helpful. Unhelpful. Painful for both of us. It took me a while to forgive myself, but at time I was furious. And exhausted. And scared. Would he NEVER be able to go to the loo without me? Would he grow up to be an anxious adult? Unable to move confidently through his life?
This had been going on for at least a year. It felt like 10.
Then I listened to a Hand in Hand Parenting podcast. It was about Special Time. I had heard of doing similar from other parenting sources. But I hadn’t heard it explained like this. This was slightly different.
Abigail and Elle explained how to follow the child’s lead, to follow the giggle, to delight in whatever they were doing, to focus on them entirely, to connect and glow at your child. To let the child be the more powerful, the stronger, the quicker, the smarter one. I wanted to try it.
I threw it out there that we could do ANYTHING, even pillow fighting, or wrestling. Bam!
We wrestled, and I lost, spectacularly, for 3 days in a row. He giggled and roared with laughter every time he pinned me down. I delighted at his strength every time. I declared that THIS time I would beat him. But I didn’t; and he giggled and roared some more.
After the 3rd day we left my room, the scene of his latest triumph, and he ran straight up the stairs to his bedroom. I froze but pretended not to notice.
When my husband came home from work that night I mentioned it to him. The look I got back said “Yeah, right, we’ll see.”
As I said, it had been a long year.
At the dinner table that evening our son asked, as usual, if I would go up to the bathroom with him. I casually asked if he might go by himself, he answered lightly “I can try” and he did.
I’d love to say that from that day on he was transformed into an out-going, solo-toilet-visiting child. Not quite, but he can answer friendly strangers’ enquiries, he does go to birthday parties alone, and he can go to the toilet on his own.
When he gets anxious he might ask one of us to take him to the bathroom, I take note, and I might up his Special Time, attend to our connection more carefully. I take it as a sign that he’s finding something hard. I use the tools, and we figure it out.
He still doesn’t like the dark. But, we’ll figure it out.
It’s a journey. Without strawberries.
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