Q: I would like to ask you for advice on how to deal with my son. He is 2 years old. Our son was from the beginning a very communicative child who went everywhere without fear. For example, when we visited people our son would go immediately into the flat and find himself a toy, whereas our now-four-year-old daughter would stay with me.
However, during the past three or four months we’ve seen a change. He clings to me a lot and hardly plays by himself or with his sister. He also seems unhappy quite often. He also became shy. He attends a music group. Before he was the first to run to the piano to “help” the teacher play. This week he went to the piano and another girl pushed him aside. He then stepped back and tears welled up. Around the time when we started to see a change it happened that he played in our yard and a vehicle passed by. My son became very frightened and ran to me. Since then he says “don’t be afraid” when he hears a vehicle. Another factor might be that he started a playgroup three times a week because I have to go to work.
I’m worried because we haven’t experienced this with our daughter, who was shy from the beginning but now is very active since attending gan.
How can I help our son?
A: This separation anxiety (which is a natural part of a child’s development) is a reflection of a child’s realization that life is going beyond a mother’s cocooned existence, which is both exciting and frightening. When parents become aware of these ambivalent feelings that a child might have, they can understand why their child is clinging to them. Though it is true that part of a child’s normal development may include a degree of separation anxiety, from ages 1 1/2-2 l/2, a parent cannot ignore a persistent response of anxiety from his child.
Certain children are not verbally expressive at age 2, which makes this challenge only more difficult. You mention that your son is communicative — is this verbally or through his actions?
If a child is able to express himself verbally, you can say: “I’ve been noticing that certain things are happening around you that seem to make you feel very uncomfortable. Like when cars come around, you feel so worried. What’s happening, exactly?” The goal is to be curious, not judgmental, when speaking to your child. By saying “worried,” and not “frightened,” we’re making the child’s response less intense and overwhelming.
By being non-judgmental and avoiding intense words to reflect a child’s feelings, we can enter the world of a child. The child will feel more comfortable to express what he may be feeling, if the parents’ questioning is open-ended — and not full of questions that can be answered monosyllabically — with “yes” or “no.”
Again, many children at this age, who are limited verbally, may be unable to participate in such a discussion. If this is the case, a parent can reflect what he feels that the child might be feeling — “It seems when the car comes, you get very worried. But Hashem will be sure that no car will hurt you.”
If the child is impulsive, and has been warned about this problematic behavior, the refrain would be more like: “It seems when the car comes, you get very worried. But baruch Hashem, you’ve been very careful when we cross the street together. You make sure to always hold my hand, and you look around to be sure that you’re safe.” By stressing specific improvements, a child’s self-definition only improves.
Sometimes behavior modification techniques need to be used, to motivate a non-motivated child, beyond her fears. If a child suddenly becomes frightened to go on an elevator, a joint family effort (even if all the siblings say Shema together with her!) can be very helpful. To go beyond one’s fears, is difficult for anyone, at any age.
The above-mentioned ideas deal with ways to alleviate a small child’s fears. However, sometimes a child’s fears deal with realistic situations — negative experiences that could be happening in a child’s playgroup. Your son could have overheard a frightening story, or was bullied by a child, and the teacher felt it should be ignored. A teacher could have lost patience with a child, and screamed at him. What is livable for one, can be traumatic for another — especially if you are 2 years old.
Though one needs to trust our children’s caregivers, it is a situation of chabdayhu vichadshahu — one needs to be aware of possible mishaps occurring — even inadvertently.
A parent sometimes needs to do some “investigation,” by possibly speaking to other parents, to get a better idea of the classroom’s “emotional temperature.” If there is no apparent cause, and anxiety continues, play therapy can be helpful, to better understand the cause of your child’s discomfort.
Blaming yourself because you went to work is not a helpful direction to go. Many children go to day care, and eventually get accustomed to the separation from their parents.
Hatzlachah in this most sensitive and complex endeavor.
Shira Frank, LCSW, has been working with children, couples and families for over 30 years. She looks forward to becoming part of your family through this column each week.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.