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Part 1 of Series: Helping caregivers and teachers support children to meet fearful challenges

Shannon’s Story

Shannon and Gina sat in a free play area near their preschool teacher. “SQUAWK!” came the loud animal sound when Gina pushed the button on a new toy. As the toy noise grew louder, Shannon’s eyes opened wider and wider until she froze, a look of sheer terror on her face. She started to back away and wailed, sinking onto the floor and crying.”Oh no,” gasped her teacher. “Put that toy away!” While Shannon cried, their teacher pulled Gina aside and said “I’m sorry, but Shannon is afraid of that toy. Next time we will remember to play with it when she’s in another room.”

Devon’s Mom’s Dilemma

Devon and his mom Jenny walked down the sidewalk with their next door neighbors. As they neared the playground, Devon suddenly grabbed his mother’s skirt tightly and shrieked. “NO BIRDIES! NO DOGGIES!” At this, Jenny’s face grew red as she picked up Devon and held him tightly. She looked at her neighbor helplessly and apologized: “I’m just so sorry… We can’t go any further with you. He’s been doing this every time. He has this issue with ducks and dogs and birds now. I think even if we don’t see one he’ll be afraid one might get him.”

Toward more supportive, long term strategies

At first, it may seem supportive to shield a child from their fears.

But both teachers and parents want and need solutions that will ultimately help children face and overcome challenges. So when there is a question, especially when a particular strategy feels good or soothing or produces relief in the short term, it’s a good idea to ask ourselves, “is this procedure also supportive in the long term?”

If not, how can Shannon’s teacher and Devon’s mom learn a more therapeutic approach? And why is that important? Let’s review these scenarios again, to better understand why and how to take a supportive long term approach. What might Shannon’s interaction with the toy, and Devon’s interaction with park creatures, have in common?

First, these scenarios are similar in how they are resolved.

In both interactions, a pattern is being established: the child first encounters a fear, or “fear inducing stimulus”, and then others respond by helping the child to escape or avoid it.

Second, these scenarios are similar in how they affect other people.

From the perspective of Shannon’s peers, her inability to play with that toy meant that they couldn’t either, at least not when she was around. From the perspective of Devon’s neighbor, the neighborhood kids couldn’t play with Devon in a park. This concept, the idea that Devon can’t play in the park, and that Shannon can’t play with toys that make animal sounds, limits interaction opportunities. It also risks changing the way peers think about approaching Shannon and Devon.

Third, these scenarios have similar “reductive” effects on the children’s “repertoire” or world. Have you ever met a family member or caregiver who says, “we used to love to do ___” but we can’t anymore”? Perhaps a family used to go to the movies, or out to dinner, or have friends over, or go to museums, or go hiking. During the initial conversation with families, that blank is filled in by all the things they need to avoid now because of fears of how people will react, fears that it won’t go well, fears that it will be too difficult, embarrassing, or noisy. Often those fears are REAL at the time! Perhaps people DID stare and talk at church when a family’s child loudly refused to stop standing on the pew. Perhaps all the teachers and mothers DID stare and talk in the parking lot as a child disrobed in public and threw a tantrum before leaving the store. Perhaps it WILL be difficult, embarrassing, or noisy. But keep reading. We can do this together.

Fourth, understand it’s a cycle: handling scenarios by allowing “fear habits” to persist, allows learners to skip learning opportunities and continue to repeat old harmful habits instead.

If Shannon and Devon can’t play with certain toys or in certain places, they have reduced opportunities to learn about those things and places, and no opportunity to learn that they are NOT scary.

Fifth, if these scenarios become habits, they make it more difficult for the child to handle or face similar or other fears in the future. These situations do not teach the child how to be more successful in coping with scary, new or different events.

Bottom Line: Instead of stopping or thwarting learning opportunities, we can expand them.

Come back Friday to learn how!