Can I just say how much I'm enjoying my very last toddler? I'm a big fan of toddlerhood in general, and it's my favorite stage (so far). It's at least the stage in which I'm the most confident and able to handle things the way I'd like to.
Sean's at the age when he is conceptual enough to be afraid of things. Which is, you know, good and bad. Yay for conceptual development! Boo for Things That Go Bump in the Night!
Lately, he's been afraid of robots, Zhu Zhus (robot hamsters), the smoke alarm, a spooky game on the Nick Jr website (which I talked about in our recent podcast), and loud sudden noises of all kinds. There are probably a few things I'm forgetting. Looking over this list, I notice a commonality: all of these things move or make sounds for no apparent reason. Huh.
Brendan has hit on a particularly brilliant way of helping Sean cope with his fears. He and I have always believed that the best strategy to dealing with and even overcoming a fear is to focus on related aspects that are under your control. You might still be afraid of spiders, but which is scarier--an encounter with a spider when you're in the kitchen and can trap it with an upside down glass (I have a friend who used to do this), or when you're standing in a corner of the house with no weapons or traps around of any kind? Aren't fears magnified when you also feel helpless in the face of them?
So our first tactic is to help the kid find some way to have some kind of control over the situation. With the scary computer game, I gave him the tool of "You have control over whether you choose this game. If it scares you, don't choose it. If you don't choose it, it can't scare you."
With the smoke alarm and robots and Zhu Zhus, Brendan thought of this: have Sean "help" fix them. So he'd take out the batteries and then show Sean that they couldn't turn on. That gave Sean a chance to look at them closely and touch them even without the added worry that they might suddenly move or emit a loud piercing noise. Brendan was very patient with this and gave Sean lots of time to come and see the objects.
Then Brendan explained that the object was wasn't working because the batteries were out, and we really wanted it to be working (so Morgan and Ryan could have their toys or because the smoke alarm helps protect our family). He asked Sean for his help in fixing the objects so that they'd work again. He had Sean hold the batteries and put them inside and even help screw on the lid to the battery compartment. Sean always likes to help do such things and even though he was still hesitant, he participated. Then Brendan would turn on the object and talk to Sean about it.
The next thing we knew, Sean is fighting with his siblings over playing with the robots and Zhu Zhus! And this morning, Sean said as we came down the stairs "Hi, Smoke Alarm!" and gave a little wave. I must note that Sean "recovered" from his fears more quickly than either of the others ever did, and I think this is partly due to his personality (stuff just blows over with him). So this is no guarantee.
This is a great strategy because it helps Sean feel supported and loved while we give him tools that he can use over and over again to learn how to cope with his fears independently. He is learning that if he investigates the source of his fears, he might find something interesting about it. He might learn more about how or why it works and as his knowledge of the Scary Thing grows, the mystery diminishes.
Introduction to Communication and Negotiation
Sean is developmentally and cognitively capable of learning problem-solving skills. His communication skills are more than adequate, too. One of the main things I've been doing with him lately is helping him learn the problem-solving lingo and walking him through the steps.
He is starting to tattle, for example. Did it just a little while ago. I can't expect him to play a real game of Tattling Tennis with me, though. He doesn't know the rules. Yet. Because he is young and relatively new at all this, I am more like the tennis coach who stands behind you and guides your hand and racket (does that really happen? I don't play tennis so I have no idea.).
So here's what happened. Morgan was playing his guitar. He wanted a turn and was screaming at her "NOOOO MORGAN!!!! MINE! MINE! NOOOOOO!" (Those of you who have owned or currently own a Toddler Model will recognize this universal speech pattern.)
Before I had a chance to intervene and help him ask in a better way, he came running up to me: "Morgan has my guitar! I want guitar! Morgan! AAAAAGGGGHHHH!" And then ran back to her and tried to smack the crap out of her.
I was right behind him (experienced mommy that I am) and stopped the hitting before it happened. I said to him "No! Don't hit Morgan. That will hurt her." And he started crying really hard.
I said to him "It sounds like you want a turn with your guitar, is that right?" Nodding sobs. "You need to tell that to Morgan. You can say 'Morgan, I'd like my guitar back, please.' and then she will know what you want. Why don't you try that?"
So he sobbed out "Morgan want guitar back. Please." And she gave it back.
Yes, this is time-consuming. And repetitive. And repetitive. But this will pay off in spades in the next year or so.
Teaching him to talk to Morgan directly about his problem is the first step toward solving his own problems independently. If I had stepped in and said the words for him, he'd learn that my job is to get his stuff back from Morgan and/or handle his problem. And I do NOT want him to learn that. Instead, giving him the tools (words) he can use and having him try them out will arm him for future similar encounters. Standing there with him while he practices those tools helps him feel understood and supported.
You might wonder why I didn't address Morgan directly, but instead, handled all this with Sean right in front of her. I want her to see that Sean's concern is valid and that I support his asking for his property back. It's easy sometimes to look at a younger sibling as a non-human "pet" or even a human "servant" (as the oldest in my family, I know this to be very true!). Supporting Sean's property rights helps her to know that he is a full member of our family who has rights that need to be respected.
Also, I wanted her to see that I stopped him from hurting her and helped him find a better way to ask for it back, which demonstrates to her that I care about and respect her, too, and her right not to be hit. It gave her practice, too, in working out problems with him. She gave the guitar back, and managed her end of the negotiation independently from me.
That's good enough usually. However, after the interaction was finished, I took the opportunity to remind her that she can help Sean know better words to say, and that even though he started off by screaming at her, if she really knew what he wanted (and I'm sure she did!) that she should have returned the guitar immediately, perhaps saying "Here's your guitar Sean! Next time just say 'Can I have my guitar back, please?' "
My toddler guy keeps me busy, and part of me is a little tired of the repetitiveness (because I've also done this twice before), but for the most part it's fun. And I know from experience this time around that the work I put into this now will free up lots more time for me in the not-so-distant future. So that keeps me motivated, too. :)