<<This post was written with the express permission of my daughter, EJ, and approved of by her before publishing. She came up with the title, in fact.>>
It started when she was a few months old. A good friend had given us an exersaucer, one of those not-inexpensive baby containment devices that most of my friends' kids had loved. I put EJ in it, and after cautiously exploring a few pieces of the toy, she started to grin and giggle, bounce up and down, and turn herself to discover every bit of her new toy. It was all happiness until she got to a little clear barrel, filled with hard red beads inside. As she spun it, and it made a loud noise, her face quickly changed to fear, and she started screaming.
After that, she would panic and wriggle in my arms if I even attempted to put her near it. Several months later, when she was secure on her feet, she would stand next to the exersaucer, only on the side that did not have that barrel. If it shook even a little bit, she would revert back to avoidance.
Aside from this reaction, though, the kid was (and is!) fearless. She was always willing to launch herself into new environments, and generally didn't mind most noise-makers, so long as she was controlling them, like in her music class. As she got older and headed to preschool, I was amazed at how happy she was to be dropped off, without so much as a tear or whimper, even as kids around her were wailing and clinging to their parents' legs.
Given that her exersaucer days were well behind her, and she was so bravely independent in so many things, I thought that we were in the clear for this fear. But she had not yet encountered the automatic toilet—a torture mechanism for many potty-training kids, as they are not large enough to stop the sensor from flushing LOUDLY over, and over, and over, while they are still trying to go to the bathroom. We had also just entered the age of the screaming, jet-engine, pulls-skin-away-from-muscle-and-bone-with-its-strength super-dryer (think Dyson), a device created to help the world go green, and as such, installed with frequency in many of the various museums and kid-attractions where there are plaques to teach important lessons (save the earth!) even in the restrooms.
By kindergarten, EJ was terrified of bathrooms. Her fear about the noises had become a generalized worry about entering public bathrooms at all, which her father or I made her do as she sobbed and protested. People encouraged us that if she faced her fears, they would go away, but parents know the difference between a simple fear, and something much more devastating. She got better and better at facing bathrooms and using them as she got used to them at school, but as she did, a somewhat elaborate routine of checking at the door for bathroom components (or having an adult scout it out first) ear-covering, body-placement relative to the dryers, etc., began to take shape. Our pediatrician told us to hang in there until around eight, at which time, if her anxiety wasn't significantly better, we should get some help.
This summer, after two years of what felt like steady improvement, everything seemed to get much more painful for her, all of the sudden. All those rules and routines were making things worse, not better, as they could not always be followed. We were losing patience, and didn't know what to do as she fought us not to use the restroom while out on excursions, or about to get on an airplane, or when stopping in the bathroom right before a movie was about to start.
We felt stuck. She felt miserable. I told her that I could contact our doctor to find someone who could help us with this, because we didn't know how to help her anymore, and were worried we might inadvertently be making it worse. She said, "Please, can you do that as soon as possible?"
Yes, sweetie, we could.
In August, with the recommendation of her pediatrician, EJ started cognitive behavior therapy, using a program called "The Coping Cat" with an excellent child psychologist. In this work, EJ has learned an entirely new way of dealing with her anxiety, not trying to eliminate her feelings of fear, but rather, to employ tools to address it when it comes up. In essence, she has learned to go from "Scaredy Cat" to "Coping Cat" by listening to her body, listening to what her mind tells her, doing activities that relax her physically, telling herself things that counter what her worried brain might say, and rewarding herself in the end.
My first reaction to our introduction to this technique was, "Why don't we all learn this as kids? This stuff is genius!" Imagine someone pulling you aside as a child and saying, "Hey, things are going to be scary sometimes, but here is what you do when you have those feelings, so you don't have to worry or push them away." Revolutionary, right?
A few weeks ago, after many sessions of learning her tools and doing homework where she exposed herself to less-scary things, we worked with her therapist to have her use a hand-dryer at the doctor's office. We stood in the bathroom for 40 minutes, and I watched as EJ's therapist showed me how to encourage her without letting her create rules and routines. She worked through her tears, and eventually turned on the dryer and put her hands under for 5 seconds. We had big high-fives all around, then I got a hug from the therapist—it was so hard to watch, but so exciting to see EJ conquer her worry.
With that under our belts, her homework task was to use a loud automatic dryer (again, think Dyson) twice before her next session. With an appointment at 1:00 p.m. today, at 10:30 a.m. I took EJ to the loud, loud hand dryer at Whole Foods, hoping we could get in our task prep, the task, and her post-task homework, as well as some lunch, before her appointment. Having that hard deadline would help us make sure the task got done, or we moved on before it got too long and scary (for both of us.)
The first attempt was hard. I had to enforce the "no making rules and routines" policy, so I couldn't let her back away from the dryer, I counted down to the attempt (even though she asked me not to), etc. I knew it was the right thing to do, but it felt merciless in the moment. It took about 20 minutes of continual effort before she did it, counting with me, then holding her hands in the dryer for longer than necessary. You could see the anxiety leaving her as we walked out of the bathroom, where we hugged, high-fived, and then sat down so she could do her homework sheet describing her experience.
We both got some pizza, had a nice little lunch, then knew it was time to try again. We both needed to use the bathroom, too, which meant that using the hand dryers would be a natural part of washing our hands.
I'm not sure what changed for her that second time around—she said that she just knew she could do it—but without any help from me, she walked right up that dryer, and stuck her hands in. She smiled. I grabbed my camera.
|Success, all by herself.|
We walked back out to a table, practically bouncing with joy the whole way. She sat down to fill out her homework, this time writing, "NO!" at the top, when asked, "Feeling Frightened?" Stuart Little, her helper, pitched in.
|Reporting the happy results.|
Then my brave girl did something I could not believe—she asked, "Can we do it again, this time just for fun?"
Yes, sweetheart. We can. Two more times. (Which she did.)
"Can you show it to Daddy?"
Yes, I can film it. We could do this all day.
Is this the end of all her worries? I'm not naive. This is a big beginning though, and a place to build upon as she faces the next dryer, and the next bathroom, and the loud noises that come up in situations she hasn't yet expected.
EJ is beaming with pride, as she should be. With Christmas in two days, I don't know if the glow of this accomplishment will stand out to her in the way that a stack of presents will. But in a year that had a lot of wonderful, I can tell you right now, December 23rd, 2013, is the greatest day I have had all year.