I have a two-year-old, Mr. O, who suddenly developed an insane fear of the Wiggles. (Well most adults are afraid of the Wiggles so maybe it’s not that outrageous.) I usually put on the Wiggles to distract the kids while I make lunch and they’re all pretty obsessed.
One day after seeing the same video about fifteen times, I heard Mr. O crying in absolute terror. Thinking someone had attacked him, I ran to the room to see what was wrong. Nothing. No one near him, no visible injuries, he’s standing alone in the middle of the room screaming.
I asked him what was wrong and he kept repeating, “I don’t want it. I don’t want it.” These are the hilarious but frustrating moments of caring for kids. No one is forcing anything on you. You don’t have anything. What in God’s name are you talking about, child!?
I used an old day care provider trick to deal with pre-verbal kids who know a whole lot in their heads but can’t express it yet. I asked him, “Can you show me?” He pointed directly at the tv.
But it’s the Wiggles!! You love the Wiggles!! It’s Five Little Ducks – we sing this every day at circle time. What is going on? Then Captain Feathersword started to cry. (Never imagined I’d be writing that line one day.)
He was sobbing, crying, wailing, and pouring his tears into a bucket. Of course the Captain and Murray the Wiggle were giggling their way through the bit, but Mr. O couldn’t stand how sad he was! It’s a testament to what a sweet boy he is that he cares so much about sad father duck and sad Capt. Feathersword.
Most kids at this age are generally this sympathetic. It’s a nice thing that people don’t often get to see when it happens among small children. It’s also a developmental stage where self-conscious feelings begin to grow and a toddler’s perception of their own relationship to the outside world begins to change. They start to realize hey, that guy’s reacting to something scary, so maybe that scary thing is nearby. And even worse, if that guy is that upset, I should probably be that upset too.
There are scary things in the world and fear is a healthy defense mechanism. But it’s often scary for both the parent and the child to be in this moment. We want to run in and comfort our baby and shield them from everything bad in the world. But if we never expose them to fear or allow them to feel it, we’re stunting their necessary growth. It’s the never-ending parenting question: what’s a healthy amount of exposure and what’s too much?
So we have to find ways to teach our little ones how to handle fearful things in a gentle way. Often this is about stepping back and trying to see what our kids can handle, and waiting just a little instead of rushing in at the first moment. I knew that even though he was struggling, this was a teachable moment for Mr. O.
At first I just skipped the song because he was so plain terrified. This is showing him that we have some level of control over the thing that is scaring us. But after a few times of doing that, I let it play. I stayed with him, hugged and held him, and we talked about how the song had a happy ending. He still didn’t like it very much and cried a bit. But after a few more viewings he got more used to it. Now all I have to do is talk him through it and though he still doesn’t love it, he can watch without getting so terribly upset.
Fear is actually a very necessary life skill. It keeps us out of a lot of trouble. For little ones it tends to be about not falling off ledges or running into traffic. But we need fear throughout our lives to keep us safe. We need to be able to recognize and respond to that prickling feeling at the back of your neck that tells you this isn’t right – I need to get myself in a safer position, and to know the best responses to do so.
For my little guys it goes back to showing them that help is here, the scary thing is scary but we can handle it, and maybe someday it won’t be so scary. But I never totally eliminate that scary thing, because my kids need to know how to protect themselves, and I won’t leave them defenseless.