Okay, I said I was only going to focus on the happy parts of last weekend, of which there were many, but I keep thinking about these sort of awful moments we had with Riley, and I could use your advice, or at least your ear.

First, a bit of backstory. I’ve talked about Riley’s various sensitivities here and there over the last few years. Maybe that’s not the right word—sensitivities—but it seems like the closest thing that captures it. Sensory issues seems a little more … I don’t know, official, sort of, than the kind of stuff I’m talking about. A lot of them he’s outgrown (he’s nowhere near as picky of an eater as he used to be, he isn’t freaked out by balloons any more, he can watch movies now without getting overly worked up over The Potential for Scary Scenes—all of these things were major problems before) but he can definitely still be a tentative, anxious kid about certain things.

A couple things happened last weekend that had us getting increasingly frustrated with Riley. First there was the Slip N’ Slide, which every kid was going nuts over. While everyone was having a blast on it, Riley hovered on the sidelines but couldn’t be talked into even sitting on it. He gave a thousand excuses for why he didn’t want to try it—he didn’t want to get wet, he didn’t want to get grass on him, he was too cold—but it was clear he was just too freaked out by it. Eventually JB got him to slide about six inches down the stupid thing while I snapped the saddest photo you ever saw. Like one of those awful roller coaster keepsake photos where everyone’s faces are frozen into a barfy expression of pure terror.

Anyway, no major deal, right? So this year he hates the Slip N’ Slide. Next year he’ll probably love it. Whatever.

Except … well, it kind of sucked, you know? I felt bad for him, I felt a little embarrassed (well-meaning family member: “Oh, I used to be an anxious kid too! Scared of everything!”), I felt annoyed that he couldn’t trust us that the slide wasn’t going to kill him.

The next day JB tried to take him swimming—not even swimming, just holding him in the water while he was wearing a life jacket—and WOW. I mean, wow. Riley just had an absolute meltdown, screaming and crying and carrying on. The water was too cold, the water had fish in it, he didn’t like it … he just lost his shit completely, at the top of his lungs.

JB’s reaction was to tell Riley that he was going to have to deal, that he wasn’t going to let go of him or anything like that, but that he had to stay in the water for a while until he calmed down. Which he didn’t. He just kept freaking out until JB and I were fighting with each other over what we should do. Keep him in there? Take him out? Push the issue? Back down?

We took him out, but mostly because I was humiliated by the scene we were causing.

I am ashamed to say that we both used language with Riley that was intended to make him feel bad about himself. We said he was being a baby, we said he was acting ridiculous. I remember saying that I was disgusted with his behavior.

You don’t have to tell me how shitty that was, believe me.

It gets worse. So a couple days later, we’re on our way back home and we’ve briefly stopped in Vancouver. The four of us were walking down the street through a bunch of people and Riley tripped and fell, skinning his knee. He instantly started howling and flipping out, and JB and I just . . . laid into him. I can’t imagine what someone must have thought if they saw us, reacting to our hurt kid by yanking him to his feet and hissing at him to stop it right now. I can’t say what JB was thinking, but I know for me it was the cumulation of several weekend frustrations, and the swimming freakout in particular, that had me feeling like my last shred of patience had disappeared. You are are TOO BIG to be acting like SUCH A GODDAMNED BABY, is what was going through my head. Oh god, we were so visibly irritated with him, and while he stood there sobbing with blood running down his knee, he turned his wet face to us and with this heartbreaking look of utter confusion said, “Why are you guys so mad at me?”

Well. I don’t feel good about telling you this, you know. I’d rather sweep that shitty memory under the rug for-fucking-ever.

But, okay, it happened, and I don’t want it to happen again. I know that’s on me, on us, that it’s our responsibility to not get mad at him in these situations, and definitely to not belittle him. I can’t stop thinking about how bad I feel for being so hard on him, and how it didn’t even help, for god’s sake. And worse, how I actually wanted, in the frustration of the moment, for him to feel bad about himself for the way he was acting. I wanted that. What the fuck.

I don’t know how to help him past these fears, and maybe part of what is so maddening is that we can’t help him, we can’t convince him that it’s okay, we can’t calm him down, and that feels like a failure on top of a failure. I don’t know how to pull aside the muddying issue of caring about what other people think, when these things happen in public. I don’t know if it’s better to hold our ground on certain things or back off completely. I don’t know how I can possibly expect him to act mature and in control, when clearly I can’t manage to do so myself.

Comments

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
231 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Redbecca
Redbecca
11 years ago

You have a gift with words, Linda and you captured it all so amazingly. Your agony (and Riley’s) comes through the screen with the force of a Mack truck.

I think most of the advice posted is really good and it sounds like there are so many of us out there! We all have parenting moments we aren’t proud of and would take back in a heartbeat, but sadly there aren’t any do-overs. We can only learn from it for next time.

One thing I haven’t seen mentioned here is that you said Riley lost his shit in the lake and was screaming about fishes going to get him. Reminds me of you losing your shit about algae and stuff in the lake at the triathlon. It still freaks you out, right? And you’ve learned to mostly cope with it now and you’re how old? Cut your 5 year old some slack on that one, eh? You KNOW that feeling in your bones. He just approaches it differently than you do because he hasn’t learned how yet.

My kiddo is sensitive too (and has ASD). For him new things are about getting used to it, being able to “control” it, and not getting pressured too much to do it. If we make a big deal about it or he thinks we think it is important, he feels incredibly pressured to do it right the first time, which we don’t expect but he seems to think we do, and he WON’T do it. He will do stuff at school and daycare he won’t do at home and it is like it is okay to mess up elsewhere but not in front of his parents. Not sure where he got this idea of perfection for us, but it drives me nuts. So we try to be casual about anything new, but at the same time talk it up a TON before we get to it or do it so he doesn’t have a complete flip out, and let me tell you that is quite a fine line to walk!

Kristen
Kristen
11 years ago

I have no advice to offer. But I do have to say thank you. Thank you for being so honest. I think every parent has these moments but there aren’t too many who share them. It’s so nice to know that everyone, EVERYONE, has moments like this.
I hope Riley outgrows his sensitities and I hope your family finds the best way to deal with them, in the meantime.
Again, thank you Linda.

Keri
11 years ago

Linda, just stop. STOP. If people forced YOU to face your own personal fears and called you a baby when you flip your shit, you sure as hell wouldn’t like to be belittled like that.

I had TEARS in my eyes reading this post. For Riley. That poor kid. PLEASE leave him alone. If he does not want to try something new (or old for that matter), tell him that it is OKAY to feel uneasy and remind him that whenever he is ready to try, you will be there to support him. His fears may not be rational to you but they are to HIM. RESPECT him and his feelings. He will come around WHEN he’s ready and IF you stop pressuring him and belittling him which is only making his reactions worse. He needs your loving support. He needs hugs and kisses when he falls and scrapes himself or when he’s in a situation that is uncomfortable for him. Hugs and kisses will help him feel more and more secure. Please, Linda, just stop forcing the issue (like you did with their eating habits until you finally let it go and things have improved, right?). Best of luck.

squandra
squandra
11 years ago

You’re such a damn good writer. I identify with this very much and all I have is a DOG.

Seriously. Litter mates, boy and girl. Girl is happy go lucky and fearless. Boy spends a SIGNIFICANT percentage of his time standing at the door and whining anxiously. At people, bikes, other dogs, birds, LEAVES. All of it.

Doesn’t hold a candle to any sort of parenting, obviously. But it’s behavior we’d love to change, and have tried SO HARD to change. Gentle Comfort, Stern Correction, Losing My Shit, and everything in between … Nothing works.

All that to say that even I identify with the feeling that despite what are really, truly, my best efforts, I’m still doing it wrong. The smart people who are ACTUAL PARENTS in the comments above have what I’m sure is some excellent advice. Here’s to hoping this too shall pass.

Kim
Kim
11 years ago

I have rarely commented here (or anywhere), but I just had to say that I so appreciate that you are willing to lay your parenting struggles and low moments out there. Makes me feel a little less like I’m the only one who sometimes acts like the exact opposite of the parent I want to be.

Anyhow, the fact that this quirk of Riley’s frustrates you so kinda makes sense to me. You and JB are very adventurous people, who are always trying new stuff and just going out there and DOING STUFF, even if it kind of scares you. That’s a great quality and you rightly want your kids to pick up on it, and you can be that awesome family that is taking on all sorts of cool stuff. And then you’ve got this kid, who is just not wired that way. At all. My husband and I are much the same way, so I can totally see it being supremely frustrating…

Not that I have any clue what to do about it. I guess the fact that you are instilling adventurousness and willingness to try new things as a value you think is important will probably someday tip the balance for him, and help him overcome his more reluctant, overly cautious nature. So maybe then, you’ll have a kid who thinks it’s important to try new things, but cautiously. That’s pretty awesome, right?

Maggie
11 years ago

My kid is frustrating in completely different ways, but I totally relate to this anyway. Thanks for putting it out there. I feel a little less alone in my parenting screw up shame!

Jean
Jean
11 years ago

We’ve all been there, but the key is that you realize you can do better, so give yourself a break.

I constantly tell myself that I am the role model for my daughter. If I make it a big deal, it’s a big deal. If a simple situation sends her screaming, I try to downplay it as much as possible. Sure, get out, chill out, relax. But I also don’t coddle her. It seems to work. Somebody else said it – walk away. They figure it out.

I think when you freak out BACK at them, it turns it into even a BIGGER issue. It creates pressure and it makes the fear more formidable. So I’d say, you don’t like the water? Okay! But I’m going in there to swim and play and have fun. It might take 3 summers for him to decide he wants to let go of the anxiety, or two weeks, or he may NEVER let go of it. But essentially, you have minimal control over it, especially in TELLING him how to feel. Never gonna work! I’ve tried it myself.

Heather
11 years ago

After everybody calmed down, did you ask him about it?

Sometimes I have tried that and he has said something that actually made sense to me. On a stressed out day daddy-o took a diaper change that turned into WWIII, it was awful. I asked him what happened and he told me that his butt was sore and that I do diapers softer … THAT was why he only wanted me and fought dad so hard. OH. Gotcha. Makes sense.

Other times he has NO idea what I’m talking about, that he got so locked up in the fear that he really was just blind fighting (like toddler night terrors). After that, I knew that just going into a blind terror fight was possible, and when I saw it then my goal was getting him back into the world before taking on whatever the actual problem is.

Thank you for sharing.

willikat
11 years ago

Totally normal. Sometimes a skinned knee is just that, and you have to move on. I think that your concern for your parenting is a sign that you are a great parent. Everyone reaches a breaking point and reacts badly sometimes.

I don’t have kids, but I do have a VERY anxious dog, and I was a giant, intense ball of anxiety for my whole childhood. It’s not rational, but it is real. I was scared of EVERYTHING as a kid. You name it. It eases as you get older and have more life experiences. Sometimes just telling them that “Hey, that’s silly” or not magnifying it into a big deal makes it a smaller deal to them too, you know? He will get there, safely and unscarred, and so will you. Don’t beat yourself up.

Lanie
Lanie
11 years ago

I think since it is an issue for you and JB, it needs to be a program that is worked on at home in the safety of not being in those scary overly sensory moments.

You can explain it as being brave and having faith in himself. Check out books from the library about similar topics, make a plan. You must try to touch it, sit on it, listen to it – whatever it is just once without being upset, and then saying “No Thank you”.

Once he is desensitized to the initial introduction to it, he graduates to, must try the whole thing “slip and slide” just once all the way down. And then he can decline more participation.

I think it’s kind of like a deal and he should get rewards for being brave later. That way he might not have the melt downs if he knows jsut one time will get him out of it entirely, and he might end up liking it.

That way, it’s a secret deal from friends and family and they don’t have to see the negotiations between you two because it’s something your always talking and working about at home.

I was an anxious kid and eventually ended up going to therapy for insomnia and “having to use the bathroom” All. the. time. I know now that it was just an escape for me, having to use the restroom because I could get out of any situation. In line at Disneyland for 4 hours and right when we get up to the ride, I would get anxious and have to go. My parents wanted to kill me, but they made a deal. Wherever I was, I got to use the bathroom only once. (After they found out it wasn’t a medical issue and I wasn’t really going). That sounded okay to me, and I would SAVE that one escape to be used at my descretion, and you know what? I just stopped escapping because i NEEDED to have that out in my back pocket. It was too much anxiety.

Good luck!

Linda
Linda
11 years ago

Oh, you guys. Thank you for everything you’re sharing with me. Thank you, thank you.

One thing I didn’t articulate well is how difficult it is for me to know when to push because sometimes pushing WORKS. Like, that’s how we got him potty trained — he would sit on the potty and cry and freak out and one night (when I was gone, otherwise I probably would have intervened) JB was just like, you’re not getting off this thing until you poop. Sounds crazy, right? But he did it, and that was that. It was like he was scared of doing it for the first time, and once he did, he was totally fine.

The swimming thing was also confusing for me because we went to a lake yesterday afternoon and Riley happily went right in up to his damn head. (I didn’t even bring a SWIMSUIT, since I figured he wouldn’t have anything to do with it.) What was different? Someone mentioned upthread that the new people/situations of being at the cabin may have affected him, and I feel a lightbulb going off over that thought. Also, we tend to think we’re helping him when we’re doing something like bringing him in the water in our arms, but clearly he wants to do it on his own terms. Next time at the cabin, I’d take him to a shallow spot away from the crowds and let him splash his way in if he wants.

Kristianna
11 years ago

Read Raising Your High Spirited Child. Some kids just can’t put away irritants or fear. Some learn how to cope… some get labeled with Sensory Integration problems. It’s a good book, regardless, for me to help, oh, REMIND myself to change around how I look at things when they’re ticking me off, haha.

Sarah
Sarah
11 years ago

I was totally a kid like Riley. I was scared of everything even remotely risky (I can clearly remember an EPIC show-down over a water-slide at the local water park that everyone else loved and I faked stomach aches nearly every swim lesson due to diving board anxiety), preferred plain vanilla everything over “riskier” flavors, hated scary movies (or anything even resembling scary movies), etc… To be honest, I’m not especially proud of that side of me but now that I’m adult I’ve realized that it doesn’t really matter. I now love to cook so I’ve gotten over the plain-vanilla issue, but I still don’t like scary movies or haunted houses, can survive a roller-coaster but prefer calmer rides, etc… What I know now is that it doesn’t matter. I have friends who love horror movies & that’s perfectly fine, but there’s really no reason I have to. I’ve also learned as an adult that it’s completely possible to not enjoy aspects of a particular experience without it meaning that I’m just idly sitting on the sidelines. In general, I think it gets better as kids get older and learn more about themselves and the world and that he (and you) will both be fine. Until then, good luck… parenting would be SO much easier with a manual, eh? :)

Kerstin
Kerstin
11 years ago

Hi there. I’m not sure if this is helpful or not, but have you read anything by Penelope Leach? She’s a child psychologist and she basically says a fearful child won’t be made less fearful by being forced to face their fears — the opposite is going to happen. What was scary becomes absolutely terrifying (and is compounded by the other feelings created in the unpleasant ‘showdown’ situations created by trying to make the kid overcome the fear by facing it).

Does that make any sense? Anyway, the gist of it is that if a child is afraid of something, you leave it be, and do what you can do to help minimize any embarrassment or shame they might feel because they’re afraid. You just tell them it’s ok, nothing to be afraid of (so they don’t start to think YOU’RE afraid!) but if they’re scared, that’s ok, some other time maybe.

Easier said than done, as always. Good luck!

ememby
11 years ago

I just wanted to say thanks for having the courage to write this (but then I find much of your writing courageous and inspiring). My almost 5-year-old has many moments like Riley’s and I can barely keep myself from saying, “Can’t you just pull your shit together?” Which means a say a lot of other things that I probably shouldn’t as well. Because sometimes you’ve got nothing left and you’ve exhausted all the options. And like you also said in your comment reply, sometimes the pushing works.
But it makes me feel better to know I’m not the only one and we’re not bad parents. We’re all trying and learning.
Thank you.

MRW
MRW
11 years ago

Haven’t read all of the comments because I’m pressed for time, but this is an issue to which I relate. My son is 8.5 and he is cautious by nature. He would not put his face in the water until we finally shelled out for private swim lessons and the teacher helped him do it and now he’s fine. He wouldn’t go down a slide alone until he was over 3. He wouldn’t try the rock climbing gym at a friend’s birthday party this fall. There are times when his level of caution drives my husband and I completely insane. It’s all I can do not to bite at him and tell him to man up. I know it would be wrong, but damn it, it’s frustrating as hell. When it feels like I’m going to throttle him, I try to think that perhaps this means during his teen years he won’t be putting himself in harms way physically and that’s a good thing. Still it bugs.

On the other hand he’s far more outgoing than I am and has no fear at all in social situations – he gleefully signed up for camps all summer long in which he knows no one and glibly told me “that’s ok, I’ll make friends” and he did. To me this is as mysterious as the dark side of the moon.

I guess I have no advice other than to say you are not alone in feeling frustrated or in reacting to his caution in a way that disappoints you sometimes. I am there, I’ve been there, it’s tough.

Cassandra Redding
Cassandra Redding
11 years ago

My second son is like this. He hated the weirdest things. Dude would not go in a bounce and play when all his friends were jumping and having a good time. He is 13 now and while he still does not like big changes (when we moved I had to paint his room the exact same colour as the last one) he is just fine. I think you should just breathe and let it go. Riley will be fine. I found that the more I pushed my son to do or try something, the more adamant he got that he would not. Don’t push him, ignore the weirdness and let him figure it out. It will be okay.

teapotlady
teapotlady
11 years ago

To quote Lady GaGa, maybe he was just “Born This Way”

Remember his baby pictures where he always looked SO SUSPICIOUS?

Larisa
Larisa
11 years ago

I don’t think my boys are quite as fearful as you describe Riley to be, so I think I’d approach it as a personality trait (hey, we’ve all got our quirks, right?) and focus on overcoming one fear at a time rather than being able to just dispell his fears as a whole. You might find it less frustrating because you’ll be able to focus on each little success (sounds like he’s had a few successes already-food, baloons, movies: Way to Go Riley!!!).

But we have dealt with a few fears of our own. I would only add a couple of things(these are probably my parenting mantras for pretty much every day): (1) Trust your gut. If you think he needs to learn to deal, then he does. If you think you were too hard this time, lighten up and move on-It’s the only way to survive parenting. (2)Pick your battles. If he could live a long and happy life without a slip-n-slide experience, then why bother? He will have plenty of other opportunities to learn to “deal”(eg: Swimming pools are far more prevalent and dangerous IMHO-esp. here in SoCal-so my kids will learn to swim whether they like it or not.) (3) Make it fun and non-threatening if possible. Eventually, the positive experiences where he comes out alive every time will quell his fear, he’ll be bored and confident and ready try new things at his own pace. (Corrollary: be patient) eg: I have my fearful 3 yo (fearful bc big bro told him that if you get water up your nose you will drown and DIE! – but that’s another saga in the parenting adventure…) hanging out on the pool steps blowing bubbles in the water (mouth only). We periodically pick him up to swish him around in the shallow end, and now he’s discovered on his own that he can stand at the foot of the stairs (head above water of course). No amount of urging on our part could get him to put his feet down on the floor of the pool until he was ready. SUCCESS! Yay Bram! (He’s so proud of himself). BTW, he’s also in swimming lessons to challenge his fears (I think the instructors are more experienced and know what “works best”. I also think the two experiences work together, and it’s not Mom pushing him-as usual-so he can focus his frustration/anxiety on a non-parent).

Comparison: At the same age, I let my older boy-the daredevil-dunk himself a couple of times to give him a healthy respect for the water. It took him about a month of swimming lessons to get over his fear that, yes, mommy instilled in him. I took a lot of heat for that parenting choice from friends who feel we should always protect from “ouches”, but I feel there’s no better lesson than personal experience (esp. for this kid, and refer to #1 above).

BTW, have you read the “Little Quack” books? I think they’re good stories to help fearful kids.

That’s all I’ve got…Good luck!

Leandra
11 years ago

You have so many comments that I haven’t read them all but your situation sounds SO similar to what we were dealing with with our daughter. She FREAKED out about putting a life jacket on to go on a boat ride at the Okefenokee Swamp two years ago after being excited about said boat ride all day. She got so upset that she ended up throwing up everywhere. Yeah, we’re the parents trying to force a lifejacket on a kid who’s not only sobbing but also throwing up. Yeah. For me, I finally boiled it down to two things: 1) I needed to prepare her for every aspect of what might happen. If she wasn’t prepared it was like she was blindsided and would freak the eff out. and 2) it was all about expectation on my part. When I quit worrying about it and just decided to go with the flow and quit worrying about what OTHER people thought, then it was easier. I’m not gonna lie, #1 was easier than #2. I still struggle with that one but I’ve come to realize that she will always be the kid who hangs back a little. She’s my shy kid. I’m just hoping that these same fears will keep her from doing crazy dangerous things when she’s a teenager! LOL!

Hang in there. You’re not alone.

Maggie
Maggie
11 years ago

I think we have all said things we regret to our children. It is hard. My oldest (age 10) is super emotional and cries over the littlest things, “You are being ridiculous” has come out of my mouth more that once, I am ashamed to admit.

I have been having a lot of issues with my second daughter in terms of irrational fears, and social interactions. She is also the MOST. DEFIANT. CHILD. ON. EARTH. So, together we started seeing a therapist. It was more to help me deal with her (do I push her, do I let it go, etc.) but I have learned a lot in only a few sessions. She has a need to be in control (defiance) and she has some social anxiety, which causes her to act in odd, and sometimes embarrassing ways in public. I just thought she was being a brat because she covers up the anxiety with over-confidence. Like she won’t say hi to someone because she doesn’t want to not because she is scared. All this to say it might help to talk with someone, it might help you to understand why he acts certain ways and how to react to him.

I want to add that I was afraid of a therapist slapping some diagnosis on my child so I resisted for a long time, but it wasn’t like that and it actually has been super helpful. We have been interacting much better. Parenting is hard, isn’t it?

jen
jen
11 years ago

Thank you so much for writing this. It makes me feel less alone. Seriously. I have (always) had very little in the way of patience and it is so hard with a child. I think the important thing is exactly what you are doing…recognizing the behavior and working to change it. I think on the domestic front, it has helped my husband and me to discuss before how to handle situations like these. For a long while, I would get angry with my husband because I felt he was being to hard and vice versa. So we decided certain behavior warranted a specific, always the same, response from both or either of us. It does not always work but it helps.

My little sister, who is now 20, was very much like this when she was younger. She’s grown up to be such a lovely young lady but she is still very worried about not such rational things (my elder sister bruises easily and always has but my little is worried she has cancer). But on the plus side, she doesn’t drink herself to oblivion like most college coeds and drives very carefully, etc. I think some people are just more cautious by nature and Riley seems to be that way. Plus I think most of it he will grow out of. Good luck!

Qtilla
11 years ago

I was terrified of everything (water, cameras, sand, noises, heat, foods- too many to list). My mom started out with arm grabbing and hissing, which never ever worked, finally she basically ignored it. She’d tell me once to put my big girl pants on and deal with it and that was it, she’d ignore the situation afterwards. I would eventually feel lonely/dumb for not enjoying myself and either try it or wuss out and go read a book.

Later I discovered I have generalized anxiety disorder (not that I’m implying he does) and I learned strategies to maintain my equilibrium, and now I’m totally normal, if not a little daring.

It’ll get better, but I think eliminating the pressure is the first step. Don’t provide him with alternatives. Just state the situation and leave it.

Heather D.
11 years ago

My son, who is now a full fledged teenager, is similar. He, however, has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. He truly cannot control how his body reacts to things. For example, we have a dog, I groomed dogs at the house for many years, we love dogs. He was taking the garbage out one night when the neighbor’s golden retriever came up behind him and startled him. His reaction was completely overblown. Came in the house shrieking, hollering, couldn’t settle down. When he was finally able to tell me that he had been feeling ‘buzzing’ sensations throughout his body we realized he had had a panic attack. It doesn’t make sense, but that is how he is.
He is still afraid sometimes to go upstairs in the dark. We have to walk him up to his room. My husband belittled him for it until I took my son to a therapist where he revealed that he felt like there was ‘something or someone’ up there that was going to get him. No matter what we say, we cannot convince him that nothing up there will get him. This fear pops up when he is going through a period of anxiety. All the belittling by my husband (or myself) wasn’t going to fix it.
I hear you, it’s frustrating. I’ve done my share of ‘grow the hell up’ type conversations but I might as well be telling him to start growing another color hair. He has about as much control over that too.
I’m sorry, I don’t really have answers, I can just relate to the frustration. I do know, that what he really needs from me is support, so I will walk him upstairs, but only if he takes his anxiety medication.
It helps me when we are in those situations, to remind myself that the world just seems a little more dangerous to him and what he needs from me is compassion. I have to take a breath, repeat in my head that he needs my support and not my criticism, bite my tongue and walk him upstairs while acting like it is no big deal.
He doesn’t ride roller coasters, he doesn’t like the pool, he is very sensitive to sounds and can be very startled by a sudden, loud noise, he can be so, so difficult but is a freaking genius who will do great things someday. I don’t want him to look back and wish that his parents would have been more supporting of him.
Like your first commenter said, some kids are just wired differently. Good luck. :)

KKF
KKF
11 years ago

Wow 123 comments. I have to put in my two cents too:
As you may know, I was a massive tenderfoot too. A lot of it I got over… eventually. Most of my tears were just a short circuit over new information and were far less concerned with actual hurt feelings or fear or resentment or anger.
Might I suggest role-play? Have him take his war guys and you be a guy and he can have two guys and one of his guys is “Riley” and then you and his other guy can help talk his Riley guy into doing something he’s scared of? Or maybe he could help “teach” his brother how to be brave in certain pretend situations. That way you can kindof suss out what his triggers are AND what he uses as safety phrases.
I’m no parent, so I’m just thinking out loud, but those things REALLY worked for me to help me put big picture situations together that were otherwise totally throwing me into meltdowns.
Good luck! You and JB are still great parents and your boys are still awesome!
meltdowns and all.

Tamara
11 years ago

Oh man, I did this EXACT thing to my niece at Disneyland of all places. The cryingest place on Earth! And I felt so terrible about it later. I still feel terrible about it. I was sure she was refusing to do things, not because she was scared, but because she wanted to control the situation and make everything about her. She’s 8. No advice for you, just commiseration.

MM
MM
11 years ago

I’m not a parent, but I was a sensitive child. Things that touched my skin (including food) and sound are my two challenges. I can’t stand some tags in shirts, and I remember my mother having to cover the seams of some of my shirts. They were just too irritating. I was a picky eater, too — nothing too strongly spiced, no vinegar, no onions, nothing with the wrong texture (lima beans! ugh). And noises could easily become overwhelming. Balloons still bother me (all that anxiety about when they’ll pop), and I have a hard time with fireworks (love how they look, but the noise *hurts*).

I remember my parents as being quite supportive, but I’m sure they “lost it” sometimes, too. And it must have been very difficult for them to set the boundaries. If you completely reinforce shy/avoidance behavior, it gets worse. I know someone who cannot get on a plane to visit his grandchildren because his fear of using public bathrooms was reinforced throughout his childhood.

My parents used a few techniques to help me cope in the wider world. One, I wasn’t able to reject something unless I’d made an honest effort to try it. That meant one bite of a new food, for example. They made a good effort at making sure this wasn’t a battleground. That is, it was a rule, they were the parent, and I could object all I wanted, but it wasn’t open for discussion. They generally did not cajole, blame, or ridicule me into trying things that one time. It was almost like it was a law of the universe!

The other technique was based on safety and being a full participant in life. The best example here was swimming lessons. My father was a lifeguard through high school and college, and he made it clear that knowing how to swim was essential. Now, I liked going to the pool, but I was terrified to take my feet off the bottom of the pool. For weeks I faked it by lifting only one leg up — I thought I was so smart. But with a good one-on-one teacher (not my parents) who was extremely patient with my fears, and with the knowledge that my parents weren’t going to budge on this, I eventually gathered enough courage to take both feet off the floor simultaneously. And when I didn’t drown immediately (miracle of miracles!), I never looked back. Swimming became great fun.

Until I had to jump off the high-dive platform, that is. It was a requirement of intermediate lessons. I was fine with diving, and heights didn’t bother me. I could stand up there all day! But jumping off a high platform seemed like the stupidest thing in the world; it was terrifying. I absolutely could not make myself do it. Finally they agreed that I only had to do it once, and my instructor realized that he would have to jump with me. We did it, and I never did it again. I’m sure my parents thought I was loony, and maybe the other kids thought I was a baby because someone had to hold my hand, but my self-esteem was high enough that I didn’t care. I don’t remember anyone belittling me, and I’m sure that helped.

I like the comment about the additive nature of new experiences. It can easily become overwhelming, and irrational fears and emotions take over. For me, sounds really trigger this. Even fun things, like going to a party, can become exhausting because of the constant noise. And sometimes it is hard to recognize that this is the true problem; even as an adult I sometimes miss the cues. All I know is that I’m irritable and/or exhausted, even while doing something that I consider fun.Very frustrating!

So yes, sometimes pushing not only works but is essential. Knowing how far and when is difficult, I’m sure, but you and your kids will survive.

I also recommend The Highly Sensitive Person/Child books by Elaine Aron. They might help you understand Riley’s experiences.

Rachel
Rachel
11 years ago

I’m so sorry this is hard right now. I wish there were some way to unsay the horrible things that sometimes come out of our mouths at our kids. The only comfort I have to offer, is that mostly they won’t remember and eventually, neither will you.

When I was a kid I got a lot of crap from my horseback riding instructors for not being able to internalize their coaching and just DO IT FOR FUCK’S SAKE. I had to go away from the lesson, think about it for a day of two and then I could do whatever they asked perfectly and never needed to be told again. I’m still that way with learning a new skill, be it playing the guitar or knitting or whatever. I have to try to the point of frustration, walk away and do it right two days later. Riley going in the lake made me think of that and wonder if he does the same thing.

Kids develop at different rates, and normal has a really wide range, but as a general rule I think if something is really stressing you out and results in parenting moments that make you ashamed of yourself, that it’s time to ask a professional. If Riley really has a Sensory Issue then it doesn’t do any of you favors to delay. Whether or not he has a disorder, you and JB will be able to better come up with a plan on how to deal with his meltdowns as a team.

KKF
KKF
11 years ago

p.s. another thought struck me just now: maybe he wasn’t scared of the water but frustrated because he wasn’t being understood? He said he didn’t want to go in but you kept asking him. Maybe he’s just going to pieces because he feels like his decisions aren’t being heard?

Victoria
Victoria
11 years ago

Linda,

Please check out Tina Payne Bryson at tinabryson.com
She has a book coming out soon titled “The Whole Brain Child” which I think will be very helpful.

Karen
Karen
11 years ago

Thank you for your honesty in this post Linda, and thank you to your readers for their honesty in theirs. As the parent of (what I’m now supposing I should call a spirited) six-year-old, I’m so thankful to hear the perspective of some of your readers who felt these things when they were children. What I wouldn’t give to get inside my kid’s head and understand why the thought certain foods in his mouth terrifies him, or whether his refusal to work on riding a bike is stubbornness or his low muscle tone. What I’m hearing from your wise commenters is that mostly it doesn’t matter. Just back off.

I have completely been there, in those moments where I’ve berated my son for his fears or disinterest. It’s not often, but sometimes I just can’t take it anymore. Where’s my happy-go-lucky kid who sees only joy in the world? Isn’t that what was in the brochure? It’s so hard to know how to help them. Push them? Comfort them? Distract them? Bribe them? We’ve tried it all. Maybe it’s working. I don’t know.

The only advice I’d offer that I haven’t already seen mentioned is that you should not be afraid to ask for help with this. We had my son evaluated for his sensory issues when he was two, and so he was in early intervention and then later went to our town’s integrated preschool. Just having the validation that yes, your kid could use a little extra help here– well, it took some pressure off us. We had a framework to work within. I also spent some time with a local child psychologist who offered fantastic strategies for encouraging our kid to try new things (one of our ongoing struggles).

And finally, I know how awful it is to have to parent with an audience. Knowing that you are being watched by other people (especially family) can add enormous amounts to the stress of it all. I want my family to see that I’ve got it under control, that my kid is normal and awesome, and that I’m a great parent. The truth is, I don’t, but he is, and on most days I am. I have no idea how they see it, but to whatever extent I’m able to tune out their gaze, I find I’m much happier. (I don’t say that to tell you to tune it out, because I expect you’ve tried that; I say that to let you know that I understand how difficult it is to accomplish that.)

Hang in there. You’re not alone in this, and your kid is awesome and you’re a great parent.

Erin
11 years ago

I can also relate to this–I have a nine year old with sensory issues. He’s totally fine in situations I think would shake him up and he freaks out in situations when I am not expecting it. It’s been a long journey and is getting better.

The turning point for me was when I separated my identity from his. I used to feel embarrassed or worry what other people would think: of him but also of me. Now, I know that he is his own person with his own “stuff” and I make sure to help him from the perspective of him being his own person rather than trying to “help” him from the perspective of what I want. It’s made a big difference. I suggest letting him be Riley and you’ll all be happier.

Your writing inspires me to no end.

Kristin
11 years ago

Oh Linda, this post made me cry. I think all parents have been there and reacted the same way you guys did. I know I have. And you feel like shit afterwards. But you’re right–live and learn. I didn’t read all of the comments, but I don’t think I can improve upon what frostedlemoncarrot said (about 25 or so comments from the beginning)–great advice.

Some kids are just anxious/nervous/scared. Some adults are like that too. You as a parent want your children to experience all of the fun things in life and not be held back by their (to you) irrational fears. The tricky thing about parenting is to figure out when you should push them and when you shouldn’t. In my humble opinion you guys did the right thing with the slip and slide (cajole, make it seem fun, don’t push too hard, let it go if it isn’t working), and probably the wrong thing with the water. When it turns into a screaming situation and you are physically forcing a child to do something they are scared of doing…it’s time to step back and evaluate. Which is so very difficult in the heat of the moment.

I don’t want this to seem like I’m judging you guys. I really don’t mean it that way–you are both clearly wonderful parents and I completely understand your situation. I have a 4.5 year old boy and a 2 year old girl and have had similar experiences with both of them. Parenting a shy/anxious child can be REALLY hard. I just try to remember that I was that way too–and now I’m not that way at all. My parents did not ever force me to do things that I was scared of doing, and in time, I learned to be braver and face my fears. It will happen for Riley too.

Michelle
Michelle
11 years ago

I know people are just trying to help but not everything is a disorder. I can’t imagine where someone would get the idea that Riley needs to be tested for Autism or even SPD for that matter. I am glad their is such a great awareness for these things now but it kind of makes me crazy when everything is so overly analized. Kids can have fears and anxieties and stress just as most of us grown adults do. I have a six year old boy that has plenty of things he is sensitive about (water being one of them) and guess what, it is not uncommon. He has lots of friends and I commiserate with his friends’ moms all the time. The more we talk, the more I discover that almost all kids have things they are sensitive about. Usually they outgrow most of it but not always. I was a sensitive kid and I definitely have things I am still fearful of and situations I overreact to and I am pretty sure I am comepletely normal! (well, almost!) I have discovered with my own son that letting him do things on his own terms is the best route and I try to be as easy breezy as I can be about the situation. Sometimes it takes every ounce of strength I have not to push him but pushing too hard always backfires. We have all had those moments and it doesn’t make you a horrible parent, it just makes you human. The fact that you want to help him and that you care is what makes you a great mom. Also, I love that you don’t just gloss over the tough stuff.

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

My daughter started having meltdowns when she was around 5 yrs old. We had her meet with a therapist for a few weeks who told us that perhaps we changed too many things on her at the same time and that’s what sparked it (kindergarten, stop sucking thumb, new room). In any case, she’d see a freckle on her hand and totally lose it. She’d have her hair up and freak that it needed to be down and then when it was down, she’d freak that it could never go back up. It was totally baffling and very frustrating. The therapist worked with her to find coping methods. I would strongly recommend you find someone Riley could talk to. My daughter is now 13 and a lovely girl with a quirky sense of humor and loved by all who meet her. I think it would be a benefit to your whole family. I’m not big on psychobabble, but it was truly the answer with my darling girl.

Sunshyn
11 years ago

Yes, occupational therapy can help. Please, please, please read “The Out-of-Sync Child.” Please.

Erin
Erin
11 years ago

We all do this as parents. I have done it a few times myself and carry the guilt with me. It typically happens when I am tired or stressed out or feeling judged as a parent and take it out on my kids.

Just the fact that you recognize your faults and vow to so better makes you a great parent. Perhaps speaking to Riley now that you are home and and you have had time to think about your actions and how you could have handled the situation better. Riley is old enough for the coles notes version of this post and an apology.

On the fears stuff, you are doing a great job of modelling how to overcome your own fears. Maybe you could talk to him about that too. Having a talk about things that scare you and how you did it anyway could give you the way to approach his fears in the future. Like saying “remember when I was scared to swim in a triathlon but I did it and I am so proud of myself for trying.”

Erin
Erin
11 years ago

I have three sons and the middle child, 9 years old, is very anxious. He has always been super sensitive and recently was diagnosed with ADHD. The meds for that make him *more* anxious. On a recent trip to Washington DC he almost had a nervous breakdown about the escalators going into the metro — literally a panic attack. But he was able to talk himself down and by holding hands (touch really helps) with me, we were able to get through it. After the first few times, he was calmer.
We also went to Disney & Universal and my is very anxious about the rides. My husband and other sons were all over the roller coasters and thrill rides and 3D movie rides and my anxious child would either panic and have to be taken off the attraction or refuse altogether to go in. My husband was so frustrated! “I just feel bad that he’s missing out on having so much fun!” my husband kept saying. I finally managed to make my husband understand that my anxious son wasn’t missing out on anything fun. He didn’t consider any of those things fun. He was perfectly happy to spend the day at the pool or running around at the dinosaur playground and *that* was great great fun for him. But forcing him to have “fun” with the others was completely counter productive. It really made my anxious boy feel terrible about himself and also more anxious.
My son and I had a talk about how some people like certain kinds of things (roller coasters) and some people like other kinds of things (the pool) and that neither was better than the other. The key was to understand what kinds of things you yourself like and don’t feel bad about yourself as a person. My son is a good, smart, empathetic, creative, funny kid. There is nothing wrong with him, even if he is anxious.
Raising the Spirited Child is a great guide to helping your son and your parenting develop as it needs to.
Lastly, my son has recently been deemed old enough to benefit from behavioral therapy with a therapist who specializes in childhood depression and anxiety. It’s not a “cure” per se, but it does help him work on coping strategies that he can take with him through his life and can help him tackle his anxiety as he grows older and faces new things. Until very recently, however, he was not considered ready for this kind of help. So for the younger kids, who are really struggling every day to do the right thing, the kind of acceptance and preparation strategies recommended in the book are kind of the only option.
Which isn’t to say that we haven’t gotten frustrated and used shame and humiliation to get our boy to cooperate at times. It happens. But as an overarching strategy, I don’t think it’s all that successful.

Maureen
Maureen
11 years ago

A big part of good parenting is letting go of the expectations of how things “should” be. Like Riley should enjoy the slip n slide, he should like the water. Fun isn’t the same for everyone. I am not going to say he has an overactive imagination, but that he has a developed one, and he can see what some dangers might be that other kids don’t.

I’m glad you feel bad about the way you treated him, because you know it was wrong. Any parent has been there, but the important part is what you do now. You have to change your behavior and accept that Riley isn’t going to act the way you want him to. The things you think he should enjoy, he either will or he won’t in his own time. Some people might say I am wrong in asking you to change, but Riley wasn’t misbehaving, he just didn’t want to participate in the activities you had selected for him.

Shaming never works on kids, and it an awful thing to do as you know. Thankfully kids are resilient, and he probably won’t even remember this part of the trip later on. However, I don’t think it would go amiss that you sat down and talked to him about it, and told him you were sorry for the way you acted. Even though he has probably put it behind him, I think it would make you feel better to clear the air.

You know you are a good parent, you just had a blip here. Any parent who is honest will admit to acting in a way they regret at one time or another. Forgive yourself.

http://www.designermama-manaallamano.blogspot.com/

This made me cry. My husband and I have fought about how to handle parenting dramas in the middle of them too which just damn, makes everything so much worse. Its hard sometimes, but don’t forget that you are both great parents with great kids.

Chloe
11 years ago

I can’t help much because I am not a parent (except to a cat, does that count?), but for what it’s worth, I was a fairly sensitive child too, and I’m fine now. I’m not sure how my parents really handled it, I think they just let me be who I was– I don’t think I melted down too much, but it’s been a long time. I am no longer afraid of balloons, but I’m still not a big fan of fireworks being set off around me, or a huge fan of loud noises. I might suggest bringing ear plugs or muffs if you are going someplace where there will be loud noises? It really is a sensory thing, it’s so unpleasant for me that I can’t have fun, and having something around that can reduce the pain will probably make him a lot more agreeable.

I don’t think they really pushed the issue, just let me be if I was uncomfortable, and when I decided to do something, I would do it (I’m pretty stubborn, very into doing things on my own terms which sounds like what Riley does, too). I did miss out on some things (I can barely ride a bike, I’ve been learning as an adult), but you’ve always got the chance to try something again, when you are older and less scared.

Aimee
11 years ago

First of all, give yourself a hug. I’ve had the same reactions, even knowing what I know. It’s mortifying and guilt-inducing, but you are human. He (and you) will be okay.

Secondly, you said “sensory problems” sounds more severe than what you’re witnessing, but it’s really not. Sensory Processing Disorder can be very mild or very severe, or anything in between. His reactions sound classic to me, very similar to what my eldest went through. He and I both have SPD; it’s worth looking into.

Then again, he may be going through an anxious phase. I couldn’t say, I’m not actually an expert, and I haven’t observed him. I’m just a mom who’s been there. :)

Regardless, what could it hurt to have an appointment with an occupational therapist who could give you an answer?

The thing to remember here is to not be afraid of the label. Labels are only words, and in cases where they’re correct, they are a HUGE help, because they assist us in guiding our kids on an easier path. The diagnoses for my son has changed his life – in so many ways – for the better.

The child who screamed if water touched his face is now on the swim team. The boy who couldn’t get a bump or scrape without banshee-like screeches now “breathes through the pain” of badly-skinned knees and says, “It hurts, but it’ll be okay.” This is after lots of therapy, and lots of breathing on my own part, and talking him through it. It’s amazing to see.

sooboo
sooboo
11 years ago

No advice, just wanted to tip my hat to you for writing such a brave, conscious, solution oriented post. I’m sure it’s not easy to lay yourself bare in this way. I truly admire the lengths you go to make positive changes in your life. It’s very inspiring.

holley
holley
11 years ago

Thank you for this post. It is so nice to hear. I have three kids and one is very similar to Riley. I have moments where I react negatively and am so bummed about my reaction. I have definitely said, “You are acting like a baby” and have even told him “I am embarrassed” Ugh. It sucks. I just have to try to be better, you know? I know for a fact Riley doesn’t have it bad so don’t be hard on yourself.

Thanks again for the post! So honest. So inspiring.

mary
mary
11 years ago

when i relax, all is well
our son was a slow to warm up kid. He would rather watch the water go down the slide than slide or hold onto the side of the hotel pool. I could not convince him it was fun. I had fun and then he joined in. He would be super skeptical and most things were risky to him. His sister came along and she is much more adventurous to the point of being suicidal when she was under 3 or maybe 5. He loosened up and even allowed my “ever patient” sister-in-law to walk him around the pool. He was well over the depth. Patience. I think I berated my son with teaching him to bike ride!

agirlandaboy
11 years ago

We’re having a version of this happening with potty training. Wombat will go at daycare (he doesn’t like to, says it’s “scary,” but he’ll go), but he FAH-REAKS OUT when we have him sit on the potty at home. Earlier this week I sunk to the place where I was trying to make him feel bad about it (“Only babies go in their diapers; I thought you were a big boy…”), and yeah, I knew it wasn’t the nicest thing but I was doing it because I thought it would work. (And, okay, because I was frustrated.)

I don’t have answers for you any more than you have answers for me, but it’s always good to hear someone else’s stories.

Marcie
Marcie
11 years ago

I’ve been there. My oldest child would do anything, join anything, basically a very easy going kid. My second was like Riley. For me, it did get much better. Now that she is 8, I find a huge difference in her.
Anything I signed her up for, she cried and cried. Like swimming lessons, (which I stayed right by the side of the pool) skating, (had to go on the ice with her)etc. Everything seemed to be a battle. Once school started, I found her confidence level rising, now she does many things I never thought she would do.

I have said many times, stop being a baby, grow up, or you’re driving me crazy! Not proud moments, but I did have many of them. I am sure this is little consolation now, but it does seem to get better as they age.

Brittany
Brittany
11 years ago

Not sure if there is a similar program in your area, but in Vancouver there is a program for kids who are a little more anxious than others called, “taming worry dragons”. It is a program that uses groups with a trained facilitator to help kids use the imagination they have to come up with solutions for their anxiety, instead of using that imagination to come up with more reasons to be anxious. It is a well researched and might be helpful for you to read for some coping strategies- good luck to you! http://heretohelp.bc.ca/publications/cbt/prog/3

holley
holley
11 years ago

PS

Just read comments. I agree with the parent who says it is ok to tell your kid to suck it up here and there. We did that with the swimming thing. I would say, “I am your parent and it my job to help keep you safe. Part of keeping you safe is teaching you how to swim. Now get the fuck in the pool” Ok kidding about the f word, but you get the point. Some things should be “forced” and some things can be let go. Of course, you know how much you can push your kid and this depends on the kid. Good luck! Love your blog

g~
g~
11 years ago

Oh, I needed this confessional from you today because I LOST MY SHIT over my 8 year old kid LOSING HIS SHIT over the stupid FINGER PRICK they do at the pediatrician’s office yesterday. It was embarrassing to have to RESTRAIN my normally perfectly compliant child over what amounts to not even stepping on a lego. AND, he actually HAS sensory integration disorder so he does not even FEEL PAIN (like, a week with a broken arm without us knowing) but he flipped the HELL OUT about it. Of course, when it was over, he felt really bad, apologized a lot and admitted it didn’t even register for him a pain. (Pant, Pant, Pant). Sorry to hijack this. But I so feel you on this one. Keep reminding me that I a) Am Not alone and b) am dealing with a CHILD so I should probably, you know, Be Better/Set the Example, etc.
Just, gah,