A guide for mothers on letting go, holding on

A guide for mothers on letting go, holding on
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First Published: Fri, May 08 2009. 08 12 PM IST

Fear factor: ‘Stranger anxiety’ is common among toddlers. CONCEPTUALPICTURES.COM
Fear factor: ‘Stranger anxiety’ is common among toddlers. CONCEPTUALPICTURES.COM
Updated: Fri, May 08 2009. 08 12 PM IST
My son, who is just over a year old, is comfortable only with the four of us at home, i.e., me, my husband and my in-laws. He refuses to go to anyone else and, if taken to a new place, he clings to one of us. Even when I take him to my mom’s house, he refuses to leave me. On the last two occasions, it got so bad that we had to get him back home immediately. My friends tell me that I should stop getting so concerned if he cries, else he will become too reserved. The fact is that we do take him to a lot of places but he is not comfortable with new faces. I am a stay-at-home mom and can’t help but be with him throughout the day. My concerns are that he should not find it difficult to socialize with others when he grows up and that I may not be able to resume my career. What should I do?
What you describe is referred to as “stranger anxiety”. It usually peaks at 12-15 months, and then begins to decrease in severity. During this phase, a child experiences extreme distress when exposed to people he is unfamiliar with.
Fear factor: ‘Stranger anxiety’ is common among toddlers. CONCEPTUALPICTURES.COM
Interestingly, till about nine months, most infants accept unfamiliar people without much anxiety and don’t create a fuss. Perhaps they are still experiencing being cocooned with the parent and don’t register other people very clearly, and don’t process their presence as threatening to them. However, as a baby approaches about nine months of age, he or she shows a strong preference for the parents or grandparent, or whoever cares for the baby on a daily basis. Now they begin to distinguish between their “own” people and “the other”. This is when they will vociferously protest about who can and cannot hold them, play with them, even look at them.
We have all experienced babies of this age bursting into tears when we just smile or wave at them, much to the embarrassment of the parents. Some kids go quiet and stare warily at strangers, or hide behind the mother, or struggle to get them and their mother away from the offending intruder.
While some children are gregarious and at ease with strange faces and new people, most kids this age are not. People who may have been dropping in quite regularly, such as aunts and uncles, neighbours, etc., suddenly pose a threat to the child during this time.
You have really nothing to worry about. His stranger anxiety will wane as he grows, over the next year or so. After this will begin the “socialization” process, when he eases up with people outside the immediate family. It is bound to happen, rest assured.
For now, please do not push him to interact with new people if he does not feel like it. Also, don’t ignore his distress, because that may make him more anxious and prompt him to cling even more to those he is familiar with. You can also tell people who are at the receiving end of his behaviour that they shouldn’t take it personally, and it is a phase which will pass. Also, most tuned-in people avoid rushing interaction with a child of this age—this is the best way for other people to be around him.
What would you do if your daughter’s teacher cuts her hair without your permission? My five-year-old went for a picnic and another child stuck chewing gum in her hair. The teacher cut her hair in a haphazard way to get rid of the gum. Now my daughter is inconsolable. She keeps asking me why the teacher cut her hair and also says she hates the other girl. I am upset and worried about how well the teachers are equipped to handle a real emergency.
It is understandable that you feel disturbed that decisions were taken about your child without your involvement; perhaps this is the first time you have experienced this. You have probably only just relinquished your full-time supervision of your child, by letting her go to school—a scary transition time for all parents.
However, there are two separate issues involved. Attending to one of these infamous chewing gum incidents (common in schools) without first consulting you is quite different from what a teacher can and should do if a child is hurt in any way. It is highly unlikely that a teacher would not call you and speak to you if it was some kind of an accident.
With the gum incident, I tend to agree with what the teacher did, because playing safe and “hands-off” till the child is back with the mother is not advisable. While it was not an emergency, it wasn’t something she could ignore either. The hair could have become more entangled over the day and would have involved haphazard cutting of the strands at some point.
It does make for an unfortunate situation, but I think it was unavoidable. What would you have preferred the teacher to have done? Would you have preferred to be able to talk to your daughter first, and tell her that her teacher would have to cut a bit of hair?
I think children around the age of 5 onwards (and their parents) have to be encouraged to learn to trust other significant adults in their lives too, in situations where the parent is not around, so that children can trust and follow what the teacher thinks is best at a moment when something untoward happens.
If some ad hoc decision has to be taken by another adult, it is more terrifying for children whose mother continues to be the absolute authority. Because the child then feels victimized and traumatized not just by the other child but even by the teacher who was trying to help. She processes such an incident wrongly and labels the teacher as the “enemy” rather than the “ally” in the process.
You need to reassure the child that the teacher cut her hair to prevent her from feeling dirty, and from her hair getting tangled even further. You too need to take a re-look at the incident—it is not a sign that your right to decide or your authority as a parent is being challenged; it is a sign that other responsible adults have your child’s well-being at heart too.
The child expressing anger and dislike about the other child is okay; let her work through her anger. At some stage later, you can introduce the idea that while the other child’s act was hateful, there is no need to hate the child. This will help the child keep things in perspective in future perhaps, and not feel so much of a victim.
Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.
Send your queries to Gouri at learningcurve@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, May 08 2009. 08 12 PM IST