QOur 2-year-old is scared of many things: using slides, going on Ferris wheels with his parents, playing in ball pits, even riding a merry-go-round on his dad’s lap. He seems to be hyper-aware of his surroundings. Other than that, he is a typical toddler who is developing on schedule, knows his ABCs, can say a ton of words and sentences, etc. Is this something we should wait out? How much should we continue to try these things?
AThis is a great question because it is a great example of the healthy and normal development of a 2-year-old. It is also a great question because parents often make the mistake of attributing intelligence to maturity. So, let’s unpack this a bit, shall we?
Why is your 2-year-old afraid of slides, Ferris wheels, ball pits and merry-go-rounds? Because they are scary! I don’t know about you, but I know quite a few adults (my husband is one) who are afraid of rides. The speed and the height are not exhilarating for him, and many other children and adults feel the same way. It is absolutely normal for humans to be afraid of rides, slides and ball pits. So let’s begin by normalizing the fear that is felt about these activities, for anyone of any age.
More important, why is a 2-year-old even more scared of these things? Why do 2-year-old children cling to their parent’s legs? Why are they “hyper-aware” of their surroundings?
Because biologically, 2-year-olds need to be scared. Their lives depend on it. Their young systems need to be alarmed and say, “Whoa, buddy. Stay close to your mom. This is not safe.” And even though your son is showing signs that he is intelligent, he is still immature. He cannot look at a slide or ride and say, “Get it together. This ride has been inspected and is thoroughly safe. Get over your fear and get up there!”
No. A 2-year-old is completely scared because he is meant to be. His primary need in life is to be loved and stay close to those to whom he is attached. When he is close to you, he feels safe and protected. We want him close because he lacks the maturity to make good decisions when he goes out on his own.
We also need to think about what it’s like for a 2-year-old’s brain to take in so much sensory information at once. An adult with a mature brain can stand in a crowded hall of talking people and focus enough to listen to one person. This takes maturity. But a 2-year-old is experiencing it all, all at once. Screams. Laughter. Flashing lights. It is overwhelming; it is supposed to be overwhelming to him. He is meant to be alarmed, and his brain says, “Too much! Stay near Mommy! Not safe!”
Furthermore, you cannot teach a child to feel safe. Feeling safe is an emotion that comes naturally when the connection is strong, so we want to encourage it when we see it.
Here is a short list of what will make 2-year-olds more fearful:
1. Physically pushing them toward what scares them. This will make them doubly alarmed, as they will be scared not just of the ride but also that you are trying to “get rid” of them.
2. Bribing, rewarding or punishing them to get them to go to what scares them.
3. Constantly trying to talk up or cheerlead how “great” it will be.
4. Comparing their fear with other children’s “bravery.”
5. Constantly bringing them to what scares them in the hope they will change their mind.
Here is a short list of what will make them feel safe:
1. When Mom, Dad or their caretaker stands at a distance and just watches.
2. Asking whether they would like to go on once and not bringing it up again. Take “no” for an answer.
3. Acknowledging and normalizing their feelings. “It is loud and scary, isn’t it?”
4. Welcoming them into your presence, unconditionally. “You can stay with me as long as you like. I will not force you to do this.”
5. Finding something that makes them smile.
You may have a child who will come to love these activities or you may have a child who will never get on a ride. It is not up to you. Your job is to love and support your son and to trust that he is right where he needs to be. And it seems as though he is.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for July 6.