Firecrackers, hair washes, ticking clocks… a whole host of things can trigger toddler fears
There are few things as tough to handle as a toddler’s fears. Let’s face it, this is a weird world we live in. It isn’t easy to get used to all the strange things – the noises, the sights, the smells – we surround ourselves with. As busy, hassled adults who’re constantly bombarded by sensory input, we hardly notice most of these things anymore, not unless we’re literally assaulted by them (which would explain the nature of our news channels these days. Right, Arnab?).
But to toddlers who’re just getting acquainted with their environment, a lot of things can be upsetting. Sudden, loud noisemakers such as pressure cookers, hair-dryers, and firecrackers are obvious triggers. Through the second year of my daughter’s life, I had to hide in the bathroom or kitchen to use a hair-dryer, because she’d sob as though Godzilla was coming if I turned it on in her vicinity. She was apparently convinced that this growling, hot air-blowing monster was going to eat mommy, and nothing I said or did could change her mind. It didn’t matter that we kept a cooker every day; she still cried for each whistle, each time. And needless to say, our Diwalis haven’t been particularly ‘happy’, since my daughter spends it mostly with her face buried in my lap, trembling at each loud cracker-burst (like ostriches, toddlers are convinced that burying their heads will make scary things go away. Only, instead of sand, they pick various portions of mummy or daddy’s anatomy to dive into, so be prepared for lots of ouch-inducing head-butts).
Not all kids are the same, of course. Some are less highly-strung, others more. And they react to different things. One little boy I know went through a phase when he became acutely sensitive to bad smells. Every morning, just as he left for playschool, the garbage truck would enter his street. Every morning, he would throw up his breakfast. Every morning, without fail.
At least with loud sounds and strong smells, you can try and find ways to protect the child. You can avoid garbage skips like the plague. Risk electrocution by blow-drying your hair in the wet bathroom. Move to Iceland during Diwali. But other fears are tougher simply because they involve tasks that can’t be avoided. Like a fear of head baths. There’re only so many days (weeks?) a toddler can go without washing her hair before she becomes a bit of a stink-hazard herself. My daughter even went through a (thankfully brief) period when she was terrified of having her face washed (yes, bath-time was an absolute delight).
Even tougher, though, are the utterly irrational fears. They’re the hardest to understand, and the hardest to deal with. Like when, one fine day, your toddler decides she’s petrified of an uncle or great-uncle she’s seen hundreds of times before, and refuses to take her face out of your shoulder unless said uncle leaves the room. Or when she decides, for whatever reason, that she’s scared of ticking clocks (my daughter’s latest) or of her own shadow. Try finding a way of avoid those. If it wasn’t for the clock on my phone (thank god for the digital revolution!), I’d completely lose track of time because all wall clocks and alarm clocks in my house are currently in forced hiding.
But really, the most heart-wrenching part is seeing your child gripped by fear. You feel helpless, because nothing you do – no amount of explaining or reassuring – seems to work. It’s frustrating because you want so much to make them feel better, but instead, at the end of a long stretch of holding and comforting, you just left feeling wrung out and exhausted. But the good news is that they do grow out of it. My daughter actually let me use Godzilla, I mean, the hair-dryer on her recently. And I’m sure we’ll have clocks on our walls again. Eventually.
- Never ridicule your child’s fears, even if they seem random. It’s very real to them.
- Comfort and reassure, and then try to distract.
- If it’s something that has to be done, just do it. Faces need to be washed, hair needs to be cut, and that’s that.
‘Toddler Talk’ is a weekly column that appears in The Hindu MetroPlus.