We have officially entered yet another new phase in parenting! Our 19 month old daughter has recently developed a fear of the bathtub– more specifically the drain. I feel semi at fault for this since I’m the one that made her aware that the drain was even there! A few weeks ago when it was time to get out of the bath she started to get really upset, so I thought if she saw the water going bye-bye she would get the hint. Um. I was wrong, she completely freaked and wanted OUT. I felt so bad! I didn’t think anything of it until her next bath, she got in was happy for about 10 seconds looked down saw the drain, got a really scared look on her face and started to cry that oh-so-sad cry that no mommy wants to hear! This is the first time she’s displayed fear of anything. I keep reassuring her its ok and show her there’s nothing to be afraid of but it doesn’t seem to be working. So I guess my question is, how can we help our children overcome their fears?
Ms. Mama Of A Scaredy Kitten
Dear Mama Of A Scaredy Kitten,
This is a GREAT question! I think as a Mom there are few things that tug at your heartstrings more than when you see your child anxious or fearful. It’s why sleep training is so hard, and what we stay up at night thinking about as our kids get older! First of all, I just want to point out that you are not even semi “at fault for this”. This won’t be the last thing that your little one is randomly frightened by, and YOU will get her through it! Remember that no matter how we view ourselves, to our children we are always the Superheroes of their lives– so make sure you are projecting the confidence and calmness that goes along with that through her panic.
Your daughter’s bath time anxiety reminds me of a little speed bump we hit with Marlowe four or five months ago. (Side Note: isn’t it amazing that in the first few months we know how many days and hours our children have been alive, and by a year and a half in we’re like “When did she start walking again? When was she terrified by that thing again?” Lol. Perspective.) Anyway, Marlowe became terrified of the water coming out of the bathtub faucet. I have no idea why– she has always loved taking baths, and can play in there for a good half an hour until I pull her out. One day I turned on the faucet to switch out the dirty tub water– and she acted like I threw a cobra in there with her. Horror and hysterics. I was dumbfounded, and a little freaked out myself. Was she seeing something I wasn’t seeing? Was there a cobra sticking it’s head out of the faucet? What the heck was going on?! She scurried, crying, to the side of the tub and held her arms up for me to get her out. That first night I complied, and wrapped her in a towel. I rocked her and calmed her down. She still had a little shampoo in her hair, but there was no getting her back in the bath.
After a few nights of super quick baths, and making sure the faucet was off before bringing her in to the bathroom– I called the game. This was ridiculous and not sustainable. Not to mention the dirty water she was sitting in throughout her bath time. So I drained the dirty water, plugged the drain, and turned on the faucet. She screamed and clutched my arms that were hanging over the side of the tub. I started splashing with the water that was coming out. “Look Marlowe,” I said. “This is so fun! Can you splash with Mama?” I laughed and played with the water. Her grip slowly relaxed on me. I splashed myself and made a surprised face. She laughed at that (Obviously. I was soaked). Then she put her hand in the water. “Agua!” She said. We splashed a little, and all of a sudden that was it. It reminded me of when I was a (very anxious) kid– and how the more the adults in my life legitimized my fears, the less secure I felt. When they reacted and shifted my World to accommodate what I was afraid of, it made me feel like that fear was scary even to them– and that terrified me.
That said, your question has inspired me to do a little research– and I found some great resources! Generally, what I found supports the powering-through approach. Most specialists and experts agree that the best thing to do is accept and listen to your child’s fear, and then to actively and calmly move through it. There is an excellent article HERE about one Mom’s experience with her daughter’s fear of water ( I sense a theme here…), and a really interesting book about dealing with Children’s fears and anxieties HERE. If you don’t have time to read these (Moms deserve 25 hours in a day) or just want the summary, here it is:
- Shifting fears and anxieties are normal presentations in children. They can appear instantly, and vanish just as quickly. You are the one who can help your child move through these fears.
- Acknowledge your child’s fear with empathy, and then move towards a solution. Tell them that you can see how scared they are right now, and you’re sorry they’re feeling so frightened. Stay calm, hold them, and tell them they’re safe.
- Don’t perpetuate the fear by reorganizing your child’s life to accommodate it. I have my own personal experience to validate this point, but the articles I read emphasize this. Our children look to us and our reactions to encourage their own emotional responses. Be empathetic, but project the confidence of knowing what is safe for your child– they’ll believe you.
- Come up with fun games and challenges to test the edges of your child’s fear. Make it in to a game. Laugh. Play. Encourage your child to be brave and challenge themselves, and keep the mood light. Every article I read stressed play and laughter as the most calming antidotes for children’s anxiety.
- Spark your child’s imagination and creativity. This is super helpful for the older and more verbal children. If they have a fear, talk it out. Ask them if that happens, what would they do? How would they solve that problem? This can calm them down and make them realize that they are more prepared to face their fears than they think– and it gives them a profound sense of agency in the solution.
- Remind them of how proud you are of them, and how safe they are. As you watch your child work through their fears and anxiety, voice how it makes you feel. Tell them how brave they are, and how proud that makes you as their parent. Remind them that you will always keep them safe, and that you will help them if things get scary.
- Change your own thinking to match your child’s newfound confidence. If your child is over their phobia, you need to move forward, too! Resist telling them stories about their fears, or reminding them what they “used to” be scared of. A new dawn, a new day!