His tiny feet lifted up as a hand grabbed one of the metal bars alongside. He pulled himself up one, then another, then…froze.
Our little guy, all 40 pounds of him, a kid who has leapt before he looked more times than I’d truly like to count, suddenly froze. “I can’t do it. I’m scared,” he said.
At first, I thought he was playing a game, joking. A few moments later, I realized he was serious…and nervous.
He wasn’t far off the ground at all. Nothing more so than usual. In fact, we’d seen him tackle much taller heights, sometimes to our chagrin, without a single thought. But suddenly, three steps up to the next level of this playground while we visited friends out of town, was causing him to freeze with fear.
Was it because it was unfamiliar territory? How could this be? What was going on?
I was perplexed.
Then he suddenly started doing the same thing back at home, on the playground set at my parents’ house which he had used time and time again. Up the ladder, down the slide, up the ladder, down the slide. It was as routine to his day as eating breakfast, but suddenly there was the same frozen fear that left him clinging to the four or five foot ladder and asking for help going up or going down.
Where did this come from? Was it a learned fear? And if so, were we to blame?
I know I’m a worrier. I feel as though I’ve gotten better at it as he grows, but I admit, I’m usually the first to say “be careful!” or “I don’t want you getting hurt!” or something else equally concerned. Immediately, that worry then culminated in worry that I had somehow crippled our son from this activity he loves with a past barrage of warnings.
Even as I write that, I see my mind has made my blame more melodramatic than it is. It’s not entirely out of the question, though, as Psychology Today notes in this 2012 article:
“If a parent is obviously anxious, the child will become anxious. If a parent seems calm, this will help the child to calm down. One of the key ways that a parent can help a child to reduce their anxiety is by managing the parent’s own anxiety.”
Luckily, when these incidents happened, we did, what seems to be the right thing. While we at first mentioned that he’s never been scared before, we didn’t dismiss his response of “But I am now,” instead asking him why he’s scared.
That same article from Psychology Today: “Many times a parent will say “You’re not scared,” to their child. The goal is to reduce the child’s anxiety but often what it does is invalidate what the child is feeling. If you were about to do something anxiety-provoking and someone told you what you were feeling, it would not be helpful. In fact, it might be frustrating. For a child, it conveys to the child that the child does not know what they are feeling and can also make the child feel that the parent does not understand. Instead, validate the child’s experience but also encourage the child to remain in the situation. “Are you scared?”
For us, that validation came in telling him it’s all right, that no one will make him go up and down the ladder and slide, and if he’d like to not use the slide, he doesn’t have to. So this went on for about two weeks. Then, suddenly, it was as if nothing had happened. Suddenly, he was back up on the ladder, asking us to join him, and that was that.
What caused him to change back? I have no idea. And some internet sleuthing didn’t turn up much to explain the no fear-fear-no fear change at such a quick turn at this just-shy-of-four phase of life. A lot out there on the development of fear, but little I could find at this writing about the back and forth switch.
Regardless, it’s okay, and I’m glad we’re back to a point that embraces his love of adventure and “the new.” I’m okay that it didn’t turn out that I had scarred him for life through my own worries. In fact, if anything, this little dip in and out of the fear pool has been good, for me at least, to offer me this little step out of the moment and realize maybe there’s a balance between protection, cautiousness and insulation and fear. He won’t be running out into the street anytime soon (especially the way some people drive down our street), but maybe the backyard and the playground can be a little more exploratory than dad’s kept it from being.