Squirrel used to be scared of everything. That’s not an exaggeration. Every new thing scared her as an infant–new sounds, new people, new places. As she grew, she attached herself to me whenever we left the house, and spent much of her early years buried in my shoulder, peeking out at the world from the safety of my arms.
By the time she was two, her fears were pretty well-defined and deeply ingrained, despite all my efforts to assure her that the world was not actually a scary place. Separation anxiety, which leaves most kids by then, was intense. She cried every time I left her at day care or in the nursery or even at home with her daddy. She was terrified of all animals–big, small, even minuscule. A tiny gnat around her head could send her into a full panic. Even the animals at the zoo, locked safely behind glass and bars, sent her into a tizzy. Storms, wind, fire trucks outside, semi trucks passing our car, strangers talking to her in the grocery store…all causes for full-on panic. She hated the water. Baths were given with only a few inches in the tub until she was about four–at which point a few inches wasn’t enough to sufficiently clean her anymore, and I had to insist on more water! She wouldn’t even go in the pool. She was quite comfortable just putting her feet in the water from the safety of the steps.
It was hard for me to be patient with some of these fears. I didn’t understand them. My rational adult mind knew they were just plain ridiculous, but how could I convince her of that? Believe me, I tried to reason with her. I tried to show her there was nothing scary about each situation. She didn’t believe me. And her fear was very real to her, and heartbreaking for me.
Some of her fears made no sense to me. She was scared of the snow. She cried when it fell outside the window. She panicked if I took her out in it. She refused to put her feet in the snow, even with her big snow boots on. The winter she was almost three, I put my foot down and told her I would not carry her outside anymore. I carried her to the middle of the yard, set her feet in the snow, and walked back to the house. She began to hyperventilate and cried until her face was a slobbery mess. I waited for her ten feet away on the porch, sure she would give up and walk to me. But she didn’t. Agonizingly long minutes passed until my mommy heartstrings were pulled back to her. But I didn’t give in. She clung to my leg and tried desperately to get on me, but together we walked one step at a time through the snow. And by the time we got to the porch, she had stopped crying and was silently walking carefully with me. However, it was another winter before she would play in the snow!
When Squirrel turned seven, she decided on her own that she was not going to be afraid of everything any more. Over the past two years, she has conquered many of her most intense fears. And she did it in her own time, and in her own way. The first one she addressed was animals. She told me one day, “I don’t want to be afraid of dogs anymore. I want to try to pet one.” So we went to my best friend’s house and played outside for awhile with the dog running free in the yard (instead of put in the house like we usually had to do.) I sat back and watched as she eyed the dog running around for awhile. Then she began to reach a hand out as it ran by and touch it. By the end of the day, Squirrel was throwing the frisbee for the dog, and running after it, and petting it, and letting it lick her hands! I was proud of her, but you know what? She was immensely proud of herself! She had showed herself that she could control her own fears and overcome them. What an amazing feat for a little girl! I know many adults that can’t do that!
She’s conquered many other fears the same way. Only a few remain, and I see her trying to overcome them too. She’s still scared of strangers, but she musters her courage to at least respond when spoken to in public. She won’t make eye contact or carry on a conversation, but it’s a start! Her biggest fear remains storms. I can’t help her with that one–I’m still terrified of storms! Maybe SHE can help ME overcome that one.
This week we’re on vacation at my Aunt’s house. We’ve spent hours each day in her pool. Over the course of this short week, I’ve watched Squirrel go from “swimming” in the shallow end–and by swimming, I mean slowly putting her whole body in the water and doggy-paddling a few strokes before standing up again. She started the week crying when she got too close to the deep end, or when someone swam under or into her. Now, just four days later, she’s cannon-balling into the deep end of the pool and swimming from one end to the other. It’s not because of anything I did. She simply decided to give it a try, and we all showered her with encouragement and praise, and now she is glowing with pride in her accomplishment.