behaviorally inhibited temperament behaviour modification brave story exposure ladder fears

My daughter spoke during a birthday party, so why don’t I feel good about it?

After my behaviorally inhibited daughter speaks at a birthday party, I explore my motivations and how they may have worked against my daughter’s and my relationship.

My daughter turned 3 years old this past summer. We had virtual “parties” with her paternal relatives and in-person celebrations with her maternal bubble during the pandemic. We sang Happy Birthday and blew out candles many times. She loved it and continues to play “birthday” many months later. Two weeks after her birthday, we were invited to a socially distant outdoor gathering for my friend’s child’s birthday. I thought this would be a good opportunity for my daughter to experience a social gathering with no pressure to play with other kids or do anything at all other than stay by my side to maintain distance from other people. And that is how I should have left it. But…

…I decided to take the opportunity to practice giving something to another child (present) and saying a socially expected phrase “happy birthday, [Friend]”. I did not think she would do these things at the party, but we used the lead up to the party to practice these acts during play in our home. I wrote a story and even conducted a small exposure ladder which included visiting the front yard of the friend’s house the day before the party and stopping to have ice-cream on the sidewalk to increase familiarity with the house (without seeing any people) and provide a positive association with the location (ice cream!). I suspected that the lure of a special treat on the day of the party would be a strong motivator for her to try to speak.

At that time, my daughter only spoke freely to her special bubble of people: parents, maternal grandparents, and little cousin. She spoke with restrictions to a handful of other relatives. She did not choose to speak to anyone else. She would, on occasion, say short statements with my prompting like “hello” and “how are you?” to neighbours that we pass on the sidewalk with the promise of a chocolate chip treat.

If this friend had not had a birthday party, I would not have sought out this opportunity. Even at the time, I felt this was too soon to push social speaking or interacting with another child that we saw infrequently. However, I tried to channel our psychologist, and I think she would have encouraged me to take advantage of the opportunity (especially since I had time to write a story and do a small exposure ladder). When we arrived at the party, my daughter held the present and I encouraged her to pass it to the birthday child. She did so but was clearly nervous. I prompted her to say, “happy birthday” which she was able to blurt out and then we immediately picked a treat from the table. For the rest of the event, my daughter stood beside my chair and watched the proceedings unfold (a bunch of adults sitting at a distance chatting about work and life). At some point I realized she was a bit more frozen than I expected and when I touched her arm, I realized she was slightly shaking. I knew this was too much and reminded her that we were going to see her cousin afterwards and we would leave soon. After a couple of minutes, I told her we were leaving and suddenly she blurted, “I want another cookie!”. The fact that she was able to speak when she was clearly distraught was surprising. Cookies are a powerful motivator, apparently.

At the time, I felt like this event had been a huge success. My daughter completed the socially appropriate act of speaking and giving a birthday gift and was thrilled to have a treat as her reward. I praised her after the event, and she had a big smile on her face. But, deep in my gut, I did not feel good about the experience; something did not sit right. I felt that I had coerced my daughter into playing the role of a puppet. She knew that by performing, she would get treats and praise from Mommy. She may have even felt that my love for her hinged on performing this incredibly difficult and fearful task. How horrible. My love for her is unconditional, but what I know does not matter; what matters is how she interprets my actions.

After much reflection, I realize that this birthday party was me pushing my daughter to do something that she did not want to do and did not need to do. Why did I think this was a good opportunity? Why did I think this was the right thing to do? I have a child who is clearly behaving atypically (not talking to others), and sometimes I feel like I am on the edge of the normal circle looking in and I feel pressure to be making active strides to get into the circle all the time. It was my own feelings of doubt about what I was doing with my daughter, my own feelings of wanting to fit in with the group, my own motivation of making my family appear normal to others, my own interpretation of what my psychologist might have recommended that pushed me to push my daughter. And I regret it.

What makes this situation different from all the other brave stories, exposure ladders, and fear-based activities that we have worked on over the past year? The other stories and ladders and actions were generally motivated by a (fearful) reality that we had to face: COVID-19, I had a doctor’s appointment for a mole removal on my face, our friend’s struggle with a special needs “explosive child” and a toddler, we were trapped in our condo’s elevator which created a phobia, etc. When I reflect on how I have encouraged bravery, it is to face things that we must face even when we are scared. It is about explaining the unknown and making it known. It always felt like we were facing things together and coming away stronger than before. It was never about exposing my daughter to fearful experiences to alleviate my own concerns of being atypical, until this birthday.

Of course, I want my daughter to be able to have good mental health and strategies to cope with feelings of anxiety. I hope that one day social situations and speaking will cause lower levels of anxiety, altogether, but pushing too much too soon will not get us there. My goals for my daughter speaking and engaging in social behaviours are long-term. They do not fit with the traditional age-requirements of our society where all preschools and classes are drop-off by 3 years old. I need to get creative. I need to find or make my own solutions that fit our life. It will be my advocacy and ingenuity that will create the environment my daughter needs to thrive such that we reach those long-term goals without sacrificing our relationship.

In my next post, I will discuss scripts I wrote for my sister to help her toddler make transitions.

One reply on “My daughter spoke during a birthday party, so why don’t I feel good about it?”

First off, I can’t thank you enough for starting this blog at a time when I’m facing the same situation with my son, who is a little bit older than your daughter.

Working on exposures takes a lot of trial and error. Sometimes you need to dial down your expectations, and there’s really only one way to find out if a situation is right or not.

It is great that you are willing to reflect on your own semi-unconscious motivations, e.g. the desire to fit in, the fear of looking out of place. It may play some part in how you approached the situation, but from where I stand I doubt it was a determining factor in how it played out.

Conversely, as you mentioned elsewhere, climbing the ladder is hard work. Exhausting even. At times I feel like just calling it quits, and just enjoying my son for who he is, but I know I have to get more comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m an introvert myself. I like to think that I need to make “conscious efforts”. So much comes into play as far as how you see education – some cultures focus on getting children as independent as possible, others prefer to let them be, even if they can’t take flight on their own at a time most can. I try to find the middle way but it’s very difficult sometimes.

I understand that temperaments don’t tend to change and that you need to accept your child for who she is. Yes, fear of elevators *must* be conquered, but I tend to feel that fear of people is even more important to get under – some – control. It’s true a crowded party is probably not a necessity, but perhaps it does help in achieving the ultimate goal, being more comfortable around people, by being gradually desensitized. We do a lot of things and many are acts of faith in the future, in the end we don’t know if it will make a difference. It’s hard to know what is too much, what is helping our kids move forward or backward. Your gut instinct is probably spot on and only you can make the necessary adjustments.

The same thing happened to me the other day, while we were at the playground. One of my son’s classmates, who is 5 and a half (son is a year younger) wanted to play ball, so I played with him and my son. It got a little too physical for my son and I was trying too hard for us to have fun. It was a mistake, and I realized it too late. I wanted us to have fun with someone else just like we do when it’s just us, but we’re far from that point still. Still, it wasn’t a traumatic experience, and I do hope it makes a difference, even if it’s not perfect. Desensitization has to play some part in all this. But it’s true it’s not just a mechanical process, and we aren’t gods shaping our children. It’s just part of the process. The rest involves many other things that have nothing to do with exposures.

In the end, as long as you remain aware of your motivations, I doubt your daughter will feel like you are “selling her soul” just to fit in, or fulfilling your own personal agenda. She knows she is loved for who she is. Your approach looks pretty sound to me, the booklets you created are very helpful I’m sure. My approach will my son is a bit different in the sense that we try to look at it as adventures and challenges. We remain who we are, but we want to explore the unknown and know that we can do it. I try to keep it playful and light, so that he knows no matter what I’m here for him. It doesn’t mean we parents don’t make mistakes, and sometimes I push too hard, or I fail to get out of my comfort zone. It does take “conscious efforts” for me to say hi to someone at times, so I need to be especially aware of my surroundings when I go out with my son.

What kind of solutions have you found that fit your life? It takes a lot of creativity to get there. This blog is very helpful and I look forward to reading more of your posts.

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