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Our Toddler’s Anxiety Around Other Children

One morning, as I was picking Caroline up from school, her teacher asked me to stay behind and talk once everyone had left. She assured me that it was no big deal, just something she wanted to mention, but of course, my heart sank. I should have realized this talk was coming. I should have known it would be an issue, but I hadn’t even thought of it.

Caroline is a star student in the classroom. She listens to directions well, she’s well behaved and focused. She learns fast, and she even practices her new skills at home. When it’s playtime at school, however, she’s having a hard time.

Her teacher informed me that when they go out to the playground, instead of running around and having fun playing, Caroline is sitting by herself and is quite upset.

The minute her teacher said this was happening, I knew why, and I knew I should have seen it coming…

Caroline has always been a rule follower, and she points it out when others are not following the rules. It bothers her to no end. She’ll come home and tell me about other children not listening well! When it comes to playground time, if another child runs into her on accident, she’s the type to internalize it as the other child pushing her and being mean. Occasionally, she’s also experienced other children taking things from her (they are still learning). She remembers EVERY incident that’s ever happened- ever. Her memory is outstanding.

These moments have been few and far between, but to Caroline they are very real and very much at the forefront. She’s now fearful and has anxiety about other children “being mean.” She’s worried that other children will push her, take her things, or that they don’t want to play with her. As a result, she’s deciding not to play at all.

She’s been this way her whole life. She’s the child at the playground that yells to me “he pushed me!”, when a child accidentally touches her. And on occasion children do things like push, and take toys- it happens. They are little humans and are still learning what is right and wrong.

We always explain things to her:

1. Accidents happen and they are different than someone doing something on purpose. We point out when something is an accident and explain the difference.

2. When a child does something on purpose (takes a toy, etc), we explain to her that the child is still learning, just like she once learned about those things. We empathize and agree that it is “not right.” We give her words that she can use in the future. Things like “please give that back, I wasn’t done with it”, and “you can take a turn when I’m finished”, or “please don’t push me, I don’t like that”, etc. I help her with this if I’m present.

If it was just me watching the children, I’d have the other child return the toy, just as I’d expect Caroline to do. If that child’s parent is present, however, I leave the discipline up to the parent. This means that the toy isn’t always returned. I just have to take extra time to talk to Caroline about this.

Things are a little bit different now, though. In the last month and a half (since April died), her feelings have been amplified. Whether it’s not wanting to be alone at bedtime, or anxiety around other children- everything is just amplified in her world right now. Instead of just being hyper-focused on these actions and incidents when they happen, she’s assuming that all children are going to behave in this way. She’s projecting these feelings onto every scenario…

At the school playground, she’s assuming that other children are going to hurt her, be mean to her, and take things from her.

If we are at a playground together, she has to have me playing with her, or she’ll not want to play at all. And if other children show up to play, she stops playing, runs to me and says they are going to be mean to her. Like I said, everything is just amplified in her world at the moment, and her anxiety is getting the best of her.

How we are helping her:

1. We’ve asked her to tell her teacher WHY she’s upset. Our message to her is that we can always help problem solve, but if we don’t know why she is upset, we won’t know how to help. So, we ask her to explain, so that we can help.

2. Practice playing independently. I decided to take her to the playground and encourage independent play. While we do independent play at home, we don’t do it at the playground. I’m the mom that’s always out there playing with her- never the mom on the sidelines. So, I literally took her to a playground, set a timer and had her play by herself. I praised her when she did a good job.

3. Practice playing around other children. When other children showed up to play at the playground, I encouraged her to “see what happens, and if there’s a problem I’ll be here to help.” I reminded her of some things she could say to the other children if something were to happen, as she explained her fears to me again. I tried to provide a comfortable setting for her to start realizing that other children are nice.

4. Practice playing with other children. It just so happened, that I had an appointment, and couldn’t bring her along. As a result, she had a playdate set up. This playdate was with a wonderfully polite girl that’s slightly older than her. I knew it would go well, and I knew that the girl’s mom would step in if anything did happen.

5. Pointing out positive interactions. We are pointing out positive interactions every time they happen. We talked about the other children that came to play at the playground, and how no one was mean to her, and that they all played nicely. We talked about how the little girl that we met on our walk the other day stopped to play and even share with her. We talked about her playdate and how the other girl was really nice the entire time, and how Caroline had fun. We are talking about it all the time and trying to help build her confidence.

6. Role playing and talking about what it looks like to play. At this age, children play near one another, not necessarily with one another. Caroline perceives this as other children not wanting to play with her. So, we’ve been describing what happens at the school playground… how just because children are running around and not stopping to talk to her, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to play with her. We explain that if she joins in, they will all enjoy it. I’ve even started showing up to school early, taking her to the exact playground, and sitting with her while she plays. I describe different scenarios and ask what she would do. She’s becoming very mentally prepared for play time at school!

7.  Addressing school playground time directly. Caroline has a phenomenal teacher. Her teacher is talking with us every day after school and helping to problem solve. Caroline told her teacher recently that she needed “something to hold” while out at the playground. This is a request that Caroline has made to me a lot in the last month. It seems to be a new type of security for her. We both really appreciated that she told her teacher something that would help her feel better out at the playground. Her teacher decided to act on it and allow this to happen!

Initially, we were going to let Caroline bring a small object to school and she’d be allowed to get it out only at the playground. We both worried that she’d focus more on the toy than on playing and socializing, however.

We then changed it to letting Caroline bring a small object to school, that her teacher could keep, and Caroline could hold if need be. I still worried that, being the only one with a toy out on the playground, might cause some of Caroline’s fears to come true, however. I didn’t want another child to see it and want to play with it.
We ended up changing what this would look like a few times, and then (at the last minute) actually changed it to a sticker reward for trying hard to have fun and playing. I had Caroline prepared for getting to hold her little object (a minion eraser that she’d chosen) out at the playground, and even practiced right before school on this day. When she walked into her classroom, the teacher and I were talking, and we both agreed that stickers would be better. Her teacher decided to do the reward system for all of the students in the class. What benefits one child usually benefits all!

I didn’t get to give Caroline a heads up to the changes, but knew she’d do fine. Even with all of our last minute changes, Caroline responded to this well and was very flexible.

I am SO very happy to report, that in just one short week of being notified of these behaviors out at the playground, we’ve seen results! We first heard of this issue last Thursday. We worked hard all week. We practiced, we talked, we set up scenarios, we empathized, we reassured. Then at school this Thursday (one week later), her teacher implemented the sticker reward for trying hard and having fun at the playground.

When I picked her up yesterday, we again stayed after class to discuss the results. Caroline and her teacher did a happy dance (literally), as they described the success they’d had! Caroline played! She had fun! She even made a friend from another class, and they were holding hands at one point. Caroline rose to the occasion, powered through, and did an excellent job. I don’t know if one thing in particular helped Caroline, but I do know that something got through to her. She still has her fears and this social anxiety, but she was able to overcome it. Something helped her, and I’m so proud of her for doing so amazing in such a short time.

Her teacher has been so phenomenal to work with. We are so lucky to have a preschool teacher that is willing to talk with us every day after class, that is willing to email ideas back and forth with me, and that is willing to implement creative solutions to help Caroline. Without this, I know I would have felt a little stuck with my options, and how we should go about handling it. I am ecstatic to have seen such amazing results in such a short time. I have no doubts Caroline will move through this anxiety with everyone’s help!

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