My brave boy,
You started preschool today.
You thought your uniform was amazing because it’s the same colour as the ones your big cousins wear. You thought your hat was really quite fetching and you couldn’t wait to use your new lunchbox. We’ve been talking about preschool for what seems like months.
We’ve gone over every aspect of what your day would look like, we practised eating lunch from your gazillion lunchboxes, we even practised how to make friends – with daddy playing the role of ‘that sad kid in the corner who might like a friend’.
We did as much as we could to make the unknown known to you.
It wasn’t enough.
You raced into your room, you showed me every corner of it, you seemed excited, no … maybe just a little bit… terrified.
The moment I had to leave, you unravelled. Your fingers dug into my arms, your eyes grew wide with horror, I could feel your fear in my bones.
I peppered little whispers in your ear about how brave you are, about what time I’d be back, about how much fun you’d have. I told you it was ok to be scared because I get scared sometimes too, but the scary never lasts very long and when it goes away you’d feel happy again. I told you to look at the little heart I drew on your hand because I’d spend all day looking at the one on mine.
It didn’t work.
Two warm but pitying teachers, pried your fingers from my arms while you screamed; and I ran.
Darling, I need you to know I wasn’t running away from you. I would never run away from you.
I want you to know how much I wanted to stay with you. My whole body wanted to be next to you. Mummies are terrible at walking away from their scared babies, we just aren’t built that way.
Can you believe me when I say I’m trying to help you be brave? When I’m next to you, you don’t need to be brave. You need me to walk away so you can practise.
Darling, I’m just trying everything I can to make this world seem a little less terrifying for you.
You have an invisible enemy which makes it hard for you to do the stuff everyone else does, and sometimes people don’t understand.
I wish I could tell everyone that when you don’t want to say hello, you’re not being rude, you just feel frozen when all the eyes are on you. I wish I could tell everyone that when you don’t want to join in the game, it’s not because you don’t want to, you’re not being a brat, you’re just worried about all the things that could go wrong if you tried. I wish they could see how outrageously loud and confident you are when you feel safe.
I wish I could tell them I’m not being overwrought or overprotective. When I sit on the floor in the middle of the room with you in my arms, I’m not pandering and I’m not spoiling you, I’m doing what I know I need to do to help you take those first brave steps by yourself. When I ask a million questions and prepare for something days in advance, I’m not being over the top or paranoid, I’m helping get the information you need to sweep away some of The Unknown. When I get worried or anxious for you, I’m not being ‘silly’, I’m just your Mum, and knowing how much something is going to affect you makes me upset. I wish people understood.
You’re not being an introvert. It’s not that you don’t like people and it’s not that you want to be by yourself. You are scared. You are waiting for something terrible to happen.
For you, The Unknown is a dark, looming monster and he’s always one step ahead of you, beckoning you to walk towards him. What I’m trying to do is help you see that The Unknown isn’t that scary. The Unknown is just that weird little fuzzy bit on the horizon which is almost never as bad as you think it will be.
The really hard part is, you’ll never discover that if I’m standing next to you, you need to learn it on your own. I need to walk away.
Every day you do brave things, you take a few steps towards a future that doesn’t frighten you. Oh how I wish that for you. So I’ll keep walking away, even though every nerve ending in my body wants to pull you in close. I want you to feel safe, but more than that, I want you to feel brave.
Darling, you were so scared today when I left. I know you were, I could hear your screams as I hid outside your room, scared you’d see me through the windows. I know you were. I wasn’t ignoring you, I was trying to help, please believe me.
Oh my darling, I’d do anything for you to feel carefree and confident. Anything.
Here are some things we’ve been doing to help with Thud’s anxious feelings, based on advice from a child psychologist:
The best way to feel less afraid of something is to keep trying it. That’s how kids learn it’s not that scary after all. Slowly, and in small doses, kids need exposure to the task that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable in order to build their confidence. It sounds barbaric and it can be traumatic for everyone, but the alternative is to wrap your child in cotton wool and teach them that you believe the world is too scary for them. In the long run, it won’t help them.
Start with one small step – like, “say hello to the teacher”, and keep asking them to do it every single day, reminding them that nothing bad will happen and there’s no further expectation, just “say hello”. When they finally do it, CELEBRATE! Let them know how proud you are because you understand how hard it is for them.
Anxious kids fear the unknown. Their minds go into overdrive and they panic about everything that might go wrong.
One way to help with this is to prepare them with as much information as possible about what will happen, in what order, and what will be expected of them at each point. Yes, it’s exhausting talking through a school day step by step but eventually they’ll say, “yes Mum, I knooooooow” and roll their eyes so hard you’ll wonder where on earth they learnt that from.
Chat through all the possible ‘terrible things’ that could happen. What are they scared of? Is it even remotely likely to happen? And if it did, would it be so bad? Often the things they’re scared of aren’t scary things at all, so if you talk about it calmly, they start to see the light.
Come up with a plan for the things that could happen, like “a kid won’t play with me”. Ask for their suggestions on how they’d handle that situation
Yes. It’s an exhausting process, but he’s afraid of the unknown and this gives him some control of the situation. The world is huge and scary and some kids feel that more than others. They’re not being naughty or rude, they’re just afraid.
It can be hard to understand anxious kids if you’ve never felt anxious yourself. It can be annoying and frustrating and embarrassing. But understanding that they don’t want to feel this way and they are too little to know how to control it is important. Letting them know you understand is vital. Tell them everyone feels that way now and then, even mummy and daddy! There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re not silly or naughty.
Talk about being brave; doing something even though it makes you feel scared. Nothing beats the look of pride in their eyes when they feel they’ve conquered a fear.