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.