It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Poppy Gets Brave

Poppy.

Poppy has not taken to New Baby. You would be justified in thinking that this is pretty standard behaviour for a two-year-old, suddenly deposed from the throne of Baby of the Household. Certainly that was my initial response, and it may indeed be a factor.

After a few days’ observation of the little so-and-so, though, I’m not sure that it is, and even if it is, it’s far from the main issue.

Anabels rightly remembered that Poppy is an empathy crier. This, too, is a factor, except that New Baby, as I described yesterday, does not cry a lot. If Poppy cried every time New Baby cried, she wouldn’t be crying much.

However, that the emotional attunedness that makes for empathy crying? I think it’s a co-symptom of what I think is the real issue. A co-symptom of, or perhaps it makes her more vulnerable to the real issue, which is …

Poppy is dealing with Huge Anxiety re: New Baby Girl.

It started with the crying, for sure. New Baby Girl (NBG from here on) arrived, and Poppy, ever cautious in new social challenges, hung back a bit. NBG burst into a shrieking storm of tears, and Poppy, ever the crying empath, broke into a similar storm of tears herself.

If it had stopped there, if Poppy simply cried when NBG cried, well, the problem would have solved itself by now, because today NBG did not cry once. But instead, I think the tears they shared stressed poor Poppy out, to the point where, in Poppy’s mind/psyche/emotional world, NBG is now associated with scary levels of tension, misery, anxiety. Additionally, my home is associated with NBG. Particularly, it seems, the front steps and entry, and the dining table.

Over the first few days of the first week, Poppy moved from her usual decisive enthusiasm — “Hi Mary! We saw a balloon today! A balloon in the sky!” — to a tentative, querulous mess. As she headed up the stairs, the tears would start, she’d be telling-begging her parents “I want to go a nap!” Even those days she was the first child here — no evil scary NBG in sight — she’d be demanding to “go a nap!” as she walked through the door. I was dishearteningly reminded of baby Lily, who’d started out so full of fun, but who reached such a state, that, after months of effort on her parents’ part and mine, I had to give them notice. Lily was not thriving with me.

That was hard, people. I’ve given one other family notice (and only one!), but never before have I felt that I’d failed with a child. I felt that I failed with Lily. I still do feel that way.

With Poppy, at least there was a clear precursor, but the symptoms were unsettlingly similar.

It must be the intervention of some kindly-disposed fates, then, that about a month ago I was asked if I would review Growing Up Brave: Expert Strategies for Helping Your Child Overcome Fear, Stress, and Anxiety.

Just in time for my sweet little sunshine Poppy to turn all quivering and anxious. But this time, instead of spinning my wheels helplessly, I had IDEAS!

Growing Up Brave is not aimed at parents of toddlers. Its focus is school-age children and adolescents with genuine anxiety disorders. Poppy is two, her source of anxiety entirely age-appropriate, and the level of anxiety, while greater than the norm, is not to the point of a disorder. (Says me, the woman with an English degree and a B.Ed.)

However, I learned a lot of useful things from this book, have put them to practice and … spoiler alert! … it’s working!

The author, Dr. Donna Pincus, is director of an Anxiety Treatment Program at Boston University. The book is an absolute pleasure to read, clear, factual and informative. Ideas and concepts are given practical illustration through non-identifying case examples.

I learned that some of my approaches were absolutely correct. You’ve heard me preach before that generally, knowing “why” a toddler does something isn’t necessary. Dr. Pincus says that, too! “Instead of worrying about what causes a child’s anxiety, we parents can better focus on what we can, normally, expect.” Ha! I feel so affirmed.

When Lily stated evidencing this behaviour, I first investigated her sleep patterns. Growing Up Brave devotes an entire chapter to “Managing Bedtime”.

The less satisfactory his sleep, the more anxious he becomes. The persistent inability to sleep well makes it harder for him to regulate his emotions and cope with stress during the day… [N]ew research confirms [that] helping a kid get a better night’s sleep, which doesn’t take long, can have an amazing effect in immediately reducing the severity of his anxiety.

My instincts here were sound.

Dr. Pincus explains — which I understood — that anxiety itself isn’t the problem. Anxiety, in fact, is adaptive, keeping us from making all sorts of rash and dangerous decisions. The person who feels no fear at all, ever, is not going to live very long. Anxiety keeps you from walking in front of a bus, from leaping into a fire, from having unprotected sex. Being brave does not mean you never feel fear. It means you see “difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather as threats to be avoided.” (p. 13, quoting Albert Bandura)

Ah. Avoidance. I had a thing or two to learn about avoidance. Obviously, avoidance is not helpful. If your primary strategy for dealing with something that makes you nervous is to avoid it entirely, you’ll never learn how to cope with it. You’ll never learn that you can cope with it. Avoidance not only robs you of the opportunity to deal with your problem, but it reinforces the belief that you’re incapable of dealing with it. I didn’t need to be told any of that. I just wasn’t recognizing avoidance behaviours in Poppy and Lily, even when they were biting me right in the behind.

The nap request? Avoidance. My confusion arose because I had been seeing this behaviour as useful and effective … yet it wasn’t helping at all. In fact, it seemed only to make things worse. Once I realized what I was looking at — thank you, Dr. Pincus! — I was better equipped to develop a more effective response.

My confusion arose because this kind of retreat is not that unusual, and it’s not always, or even usually, avoidance. A child comes in fretful, but after 15 or 20 minutes alone in a quiet room is ready to join the fray. I’ve seen it regularly enough to have given it a label: I call it a “transitional strategy”. Introverted me totally gets that, and respects it. Used in that manner, retreat is indeed a reasonable transitional strategy. But the child who cries to be alone, cries with fear and trembling, and NEVER WANTS TO COME BACK EVER, EVER,EVER!?!? That’s not “transitional”, it’s just “avoidance”. Ooooohhhh…

The opposite of avoidance, I learned, is exposure. Rather than flee what’s provoking the anxiety, you approach it. But not all at once. I’m not required to fling poor Poppy bodily off the dock and into the depths of her fear. Rather, we’ll approach it incrementally, with what Dr. Pincus terms a “Bravery Ladder”. First Poppy will dip in one big toe, and get lots of praise for the courage that requires, and then one foot. She’ll be swimming those seas eventually, but we’ll let her do it a baby step at a time.

The book suggests that the child works with you to identify a goal, and then to break it down into achievable steps. Poppy is only two. If I suggest to her that the goal is to be in the room all day with NBG and be happy about it … I think the poor child would have a nervous breakdown on the spot. She does not yet see her anxiety as a handicap; she’s not mature enough to see time spent with NBG as a desirable goal. NBG makes her feel shaky, nervous, scared. NBG makes her heart race and her tummy clench. Why on earth would she ever want to spend a whole day with her????

So I’m not consulting Poppy about this. I’m devising the Bravery Ladder myself. I considered a number of factors:
– Poppy has been using a nap as an avoidance tactic. She needs to stop doing that, but we’re going to wean her off it gradually.
– Poppy has been avoiding contact with NBG. We need to encourage contact gradually, and do our very best to see that it’s positive.
– Poppy hates, hates, hates, hates it when NBG cries. Poppy needs to learn that even though she finds the tears distressing, she doesn’t need to cry, too. Even though the tears make her nervous, she can stay in the same room and be functional. Eventually — the long-term goal — I want Poppy to be able to shift her attention from her own reaction to NBG’s tears to concern for NBG. Instead of fleeing the tears, I want her to move in to comfort.
– The sight and sound of NBG a trigger for anxiety, obviously, but so is my front porch and entry, and also the dining table. In other venues, particularly out of the house, she’s quite relaxed. So I can use the other venues as places she can experience NBG’s presence with less anxiety, gradually desensitizing her in a fairly passive way. I can focus efforts on active re-training in the entry and dining room.

So. Toward the end of last week, I greeted Poppy with a carefully measured dose of calm and confident cheer. Warmly welcoming, but not over-the-top.

“I want to go a naaaaaap!” Poppy is whining, tears on her face, her voice a creaky trembling whinge. Before this, mom or I would try to get her engaged with some other idea or activity without overtly refusing the request. It was not a successful strategy. Poppy would rail and scream, flail and fuss. Mom would peel Poppy off her body, hand her over and flee.

Whee, fun.

Today, though the ultimate goal is to be rid of this nap tactic altogether, I start small. Rather than refuse the nap outright, I’m going to let her earn a brief nap … by controlling the expression of her anxiety.

“You want to have a nap?”

“Yeeeeeees. I want to go a naaaaap!”

“If you ask me in a calm voice, you can have a short nap. If you cry, you will stay downstairs with the rest of us.” (Including, of course, scary scary NBG.) All this said in tones of matter-of-fact cheer. Poppy pauses and takes a breath. She stops wailing.

“May I go a nap, p’eas?” The tone is still pretty creaky and whiny, but the form is polite. She’s not crying, she’s talking. It will do for a start. Even though she’s experiencing anxiety, she’s controlling its expression. That’s pretty damned good for two years old. It’s a first step, and a small one, but it’s a step. Her toe is in that water!

“Nice asking! You used your polite words. Thank you! Yes, you may have a nap for a few minutes.”

Up she went, and stayed there for the 20 minutes it took to get everyone ready for our morning outing. When the stroller was packed with diapers, sand toys, snacks and the other children, I raced upstairs and brought Poppy down. Once we were heading to the park — a low-stress venue — she morphed back into her usual cheerful, engaging, declarative self.

I ensured that she played close to NBG for some of the time we were at the park. I pointed out the times that NBG smiled at Poppy. I had Poppy give NBG toys, and noted that NBG enjoyed them. I also let Poppy wander away and play by herself for some of the time, too. NBG is stressful for Poppy. Small doses are sufficient.

And when we approached my front porch on our return from the park? Whiny, creaky, pathetic request to “go a nap”.

Sigh… But that’s okay! Baby steps. Baby steps!

Whew. You know what? This is turning into a short novel. I’ll stop here and finish tomorrow.

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September 14, 2012 - Posted by | behavioural stuff, books, health and safety, Poppy, socializing | , , , , ,

10 Comments »

  1. This post is very informative. How great that you were asked to read that book. My youngest has suffered with anxiety since about 2 years old too. He’s almost ten now. How wonderful that you are invested in helping Poppy get through her anxiety with NBG. I just might have to read that book, especially since it’s geared towards my son’s age.

    I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. I don’t have a ton of experience with high-anxiety kids, but it’s certainly helping me with Poppy, and I sure wish I’d had it for Lily!

    Comment by Marci | September 15, 2012 | Reply

  2. Great ideas!

    Thanks!

    Comment by Kate | September 15, 2012 | Reply

  3. Oh poor Poppy. She’s just big enough to understand the emotions she is feeling are nasty and not big enough to sort out what is hers and what is NBG’s and then get them out of her system. I hope the bravery training goes well for everyone’s sake. As you say hopefully the empathy can be redirected into comfort once she gets past the anxious!

    Your summation that “she’s just big enough…and not big enough…” is exactly it. I really like that explanation of her internal dynamic. Nicely put!

    Comment by anabels | September 16, 2012 | Reply

  4. […] Friday, I told you about Poppy and her Huge Anxiety re: New Baby Girl. It started when NBG cried those first few days, and Poppy, little empathy crier that she is, […]

    Pingback by Poppy Gets Brave, part 2 « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | September 18, 2012 | Reply

  5. […] how once-happy Poppy had vanished into a quivering, tentative, anxiety-stricken wobble at the advent of New Baby Girl (NBG)? And remember how, coincidentally, I was reading Growing Up […]

    Pingback by She’s back! « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | September 26, 2012 | Reply

  6. […] you haven’t read the other posts, the context for all this celebration is here, here, and […]

    Pingback by Give-away: Growing Up Brave « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | October 3, 2012 | Reply

  7. It was so wonderful to read this! I’m so happy that you have found the tools in growing up brave to be helpful!

    I certainly did. I’ve always felt a bit at a loss with the anxious children, vacillating between being encouraging and getting exasperated because I seemed to be able to help so little. Now I can proceed with far more confidence. You’ve given me a new set of tools for my professional toolbox that I know will make me better at my job, and benefit the children in my care. I am delighted!

    I’m also delighted that you dropped by with a comment. Thank you for taking the time.

    Comment by Dr Pincus | October 7, 2012 | Reply

  8. […] Poor Poppy. Poor empathetic, anxiety-prone Poppy. […]

    Pingback by Fingers Crossed « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | October 9, 2012 | Reply

  9. […] re-discovering her brave, Poppy has blossomed right back into the pre-anxiety girl I’d loved so […]

    Pingback by Sunshine Poppy « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | November 6, 2012 | Reply

  10. […] a function of her character — does she like the mystery, does it tweak her (greatly reduced) tendency to anxiety, is she duly impressed by the need to behave? Has she taken a mild suggestion and just run with it […]

    Pingback by Santa Claus, Enforcer « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | December 3, 2013 | Reply


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