Don’t Underestimate Your Kids
Humans are complicated and unpredictable. This is a story of my eldest son and how he taught me to never underestimate someone and not to assume you know the trajectory of life.
Almost two years ago, one month into the school year, when he was one month shy of his 5th birthday, his baby sister was born. He had asked repeatedly for a baby sister and could not be more excited. He was immediately the most loving big brother.
She happened to be born right before they had off from school for a week so he really got to spend time with her. The week passes and it’s time to go back to school. To backtrack, his first few drop off experiences were normal – there was crying at the beginning but quickly recovered and always had a big smile when it came time to pick up. He was always pretty clingy in new situations but once he’d warm up and be comfortable he’d be totally fine. By Kindergarten, he started the school year with no issues, he ran in the first day excited to see his friends and be back at school.
So come the time to go back to school, I didn’t think anything would be different. I knew our life at home changed but I assumed his school routine would stay the same. I was wrong. He’s a smart boy who’s very observant and always aware. He noticed that at home I was often feeding the baby. He decided and convinced himself that I wouldn’t be able to pick him up from school because I’d be feeding the baby. This then turned into having a very hard time being dropped off in the morning because he was convinced I couldn’t be there at the end of the day.
I repeatedly told him I would be there. I actually have time anxiety and show up to pick-up 15 minutes early every day, so I told him not only would I be there, I’m always early! It started to transfer to other parts of life – his skating lessons that he would gladly go on the ice for a few weeks before, he wouldn’t anymore because he was sure I’d have to run home in the middle and not be there.
At first, I thought talking to him and SHOWING him, by always being there, would be enough. But very quickly my husband and I realized it wasn’t getting better.
We could see he was really struggling and we didn’t know what to do. I asked a few friends and one recommended a psychotherapist who does Play Therapy. I called her and explained what was happening. She told me that since it’s still pretty new and a very specific source of anxiety she hoped we’d have success.
We met with her first and then he had several sessions. She taught him how the worry monster was telling him “Mommy won’t pick you up” and he had to talk back to the worry monster and shrink it. She taught him how to breathe to relax. She taught him to understand his emotions and explained how his anxiety can tense up your whole body and physically you can feel it. She did all this through play – games, art, dress up and more.With her sessions and our work she had us doing – what to answer when he would be nervous at drop off etc, thank gd he had true success. A few months later, he was back to running into school. By the summer, he got on a school bus the first day of camp knowing no one on the bus, to go to a brand new camp where he only knew a handful of people, with a big smile on his face. I couldn’t believe this was the same kid who a few months before wouldn’t go into a school he had been in for 3 years already.
I thought the anxiety was behind us. But what I’ve since learned, is it can creep back. Summer came and went and he had the best time. Now he was starting first grade! He was so excited. He admitted he was a little nervous with the unknown of grade school but he was comfortable there and ready to conquer it. Grade one is the oldest grade on the campus and he was excited to be a part of that. Once again the first part was great. We went away for a holiday, and right around the time his baby sister turned 1, his anxiety returned with a vengeance. It was the same thing – I’m not going to pick him up (keep in mind how frustrating this can be, as it’s completely irrational and I’ve made sure to never even be late)
This time he added a new level – it wasn’t just dropping off at school, it was also anywhere – he needed to know where we were at all times. If we were home and I went upstairs, he would get nervous if I didn’t announce I was going upstairs. It was almost as if he didn’t have eyes on us that we could disappear. It’s heartbreaking watching your child feel these things. This time we didn’t hesitate and quickly called the psychotherapist again. He met with her several times and slowly but surely he was starting to act more like himself.
After a few months, he was back to himself at home, but the teachers explained that while he was definitely better he still needed to know when they’d be coming back if they were leaving the room. Simultaneously, he would surprise me. For example, he went on sleep overs and would go weekly if there was opportunity to do so. He went happily and excited and never had issues.
In general he often used language he learned at therapy and if he was nervous he’d express it and “talk back to the worry monster.” If he had anxious moments he would use his tools he learned to get through.
Now here’s the thing, it’s only been a few months since he’s been doing so much better. Yesterday, he decided he wants to do a 3 day trial at sleepover camp with his cousins. The cousins his age are girls, so I wanted to make sure he really understood that he didn’t know any of the boys that would be in his bunk. He got it and said he was good with it.
In the car I said to my husband, “I just wish he was going with a friend that’s a boy.” He heard me from the back row and interrupted, “I’ll make friends Mommy!” Wow.
And that’s when I realized that you can’t predict a child’s behavior. Eight months ago, he wouldn’t go into the playground at school with friends that are almost like brothers to him. And now, he wants to go for 3 days to sleep-away camp with no one he knows in his bunk.
Sometimes we make decisions for our children based on what we assume they want, don’t want, can handle etc. I hadn’t even offered him to go on the trial. He heard about it and asked me. I could be worried he’s too young and say no, but I don’t want to hold him back when he feels he can handle it.
I know 99% of the reason he’s sure of himself to go is because he has cousins at the camp. (And the canteen/food box) His cousins give him a confidence no one else can replicate. But it’s still shocking. If I called his Grade One teachers, I don’t think they’d believe me.
People are complicated. Anxiety is irrational. It’s so easy to label a kid – he’s shy, he’s loud, he’s anxious etc etc. I’m not at all advocating that you go for therapy and all anxiety goes away. I’m advocating that you do everything you can to help your child overcome obstacles and don’t assume just because they struggle with something at one point it will necessary affect their trajectory.
I thought that maybe he’d wake up this morning and decide he was just excited yesterday but doesn’t actually want to go this year. The opposite happened, he wanted to read the packing list and start to plan. He’s telling everyone he sees that he’s going. He’s so PROUD of himself for wanting to go. He feels very mature and at home is already doing things on his own that in the past he may have asked me to help with – “because I’ll need to do it in camp.”
If we could have peeked into the future 8 months ago and know that this is where we’d be, we wouldn’t have believed it. It’s a big deal that he’s going away for 3 days but it’s not about the fact that he’s going to camp that’s getting to me. He overcame something he really struggled with and I’m so overwhelmed with happiness for him that he’s made it to this point in his life. I’m beyond grateful that he has cousins that make him feel strong and brave and give him the confidence to go.
I’m very aware that this may not be the end of his struggles with anxiety, and we will support him in every way we can if it returns. But wow, did he teach me not to make assumptions about how life will look a few months ahead.