So I've just had one of the most exhausting experiences with my child on record. And it didn't happen at the doctor's office, or at the dentist's -- it didn't happen in the Target store when he couldn't have something he felt he needed badly -- instead, it happened in the bathroom, at bath time. And I'm reminded, though it hasn't happened in a while, that the potential for my intelligent, anxious child to have a major melt-down over seemingly nothing at all is always there, always a factor.
He never forgets, this kid, and there are a variety of relatively benign, normal but unfortunate experiences that he has carried with him for longer than I can sometimes believe -- a splash of too-hot water on his foot when he was about a year old, a train ride that involved a high-pitched warning noise every time the doors would shut, a doctor visit that involved a somewhat painful procedure to treat a nasty double-ear infection.
So about a week ago when he got in the tub (a place we've seldom had any difficulty), a bug bite on his foot stung a little in the warm water. It was an unpleasant surprise, and he managed it well by keeping his foot elevated out of the water during his bath. It was still a concern for him two nights later, but by Friday everything was fine -- he sat normally for his bath, and the only problem was the lake he created on the bathroom floor by happily sloshing back and forth in the tub.
But tonight was different -- tonight was meltdown night, and he was terrified of the water. It would hurt his foot he said. It's too hot he said. I tested and re-tested it, added cold water simply to reassure him, even got him to briefly rest his "good" foot in the tub. I reminded him of what a brave, smart boy he is -- I comforted him, I did everything I could think of. But it still took fifteen or more minutes to make any progress towards his bath. Fifteen minutes of crying, wailing, me pleading with him and trying to do what's best in the long run.
Backing down was not an option, because I know that if these types of fears are given legitimacy they tend to stick far longer. But I didn't want the kid to be terrified either, wasn't going to force him. And it's a fine line, let me tell you, between getting your kid to prove to himself that he can handle his fears, and forcing him to do something that he's genuinely afraid of, thereby making things worse. I didn't think he was faking, he seldom does that. But he can work himself into a state over something like this pretty easily -- he has a short fuse for anxiety, and the flash-to- bang time for him is almost instantaneous.
In the end, I drained out most of the water after adding cold; and I coaxed him into putting the "good" foot in to rest there. He was very, very upset and afraid, and if I hadn't thought quitting would simply have led to more bathing refusals down the road, I'd have backed off. But it didn't seem wise. So I put a plastic bin, upended, into the bath water where it stuck up over the level of the water and made a platform for his "bad" foot. And there he stood, while I essentially sponge-bathed him, and praised him for being so brave, and so smart. "The box and the washcloth worked!!" He said repeatedly, smiling, reassuring himself. "It worked!" "That's right." I said. "Remember that for every problem, there's an answer. We had a problem with helping you take a bath, but we found the answer together."
Of course I had also tried showing him that the water didn't burn me, and so it wouldn't burn him. But that logic failed. "It doesn't burn Mommy," I said, "and you and I are the same." "But we're NOT the same!" wailed my five year old son, and he was of course right.
I can't stand to see him so afraid, the look on his face saying he's very frightened and worried and he wants to trust me, but he knows I can't always keep things from happening that he doesn't want -- a flu shot, his ear drops, the taste of toothpaste, trips to the doctor -- he knows I don't have quite the same values he has. So he's crying, and trying to get by, and I struggle to keep from crying myself because I'm not convinced I shouldn't just give in and hope that somehow the problem will resolve itself. But the thing is, now and again, we go through this. I know how anxious he is. And when I was a kid, a big part of my life was fear. I was anxious too, and there was always something going on to make life more difficult, to make happiness and a calm night's sleep a thing of uncertainty. I had nightmares from an early age (2 and 3) that I still remember better than any cute little birthday parties or trips to the zoo, or time spent with "mom and dad." And I don't want my boy's life to be about this kind of fear. I know he can master some of these feelings, and that this strength will be important for him as he ages. He needs to know he can be brave, and smart, and that every problem has an answer -- one he can find, one that will resolve his need to spare himself what worries him while accomplishing what needs to be done. To outsmart himself, to maintain a feeling of control -- it takes practice.
He's only five, though.