Question: My 3-year-old daughter, a passionate little girl who definitely falls close to the “highly sensitive” end of the temperament spectrum, spent much of our 3-week vacation growling at every family member who entered the room and saying things like “No! You can’t be here. Don’t look at me. Go away!” In general, her first response when other kids/adults – even familiar ones whom she’s played or interacted happily with before – approach her is to push them away by yelling, growling, or telling them they’re not allowed to be there. We’ve been told that this is an attempt to gain control over her surroundings and be in charge, but I feel like maybe there’s more to it than that. She also really struggles with new environments/situations; today was her first day of gymnastics, and she spent almost the whole 45 minutes crying/screaming and refusing to leave my side or follow the instructor’s directions, even though she’s totally physical, loves gymnastic-type movements, and is very independent and focused when involved with something she loves. She thrives at preschool. Any insights into what might be going on for her in the above-mentioned instances would be greatly appreciated.
The idea that your 3 year-old is trying to gain control over her surroundings is a good hypothesis and is consistent with her developmental age. Three year olds really need to believe they are in control as they become increasingly aware of how little they can control in their environments.
However, your feeling that it may be something else needs to be respected and taken seriously. Moms often have an intuitive sense about these things. The most likely possibility is that your daughter may be more prone to anxiety. People experience anxiety and fear in physiologically similar ways: adrenalin and stress hormones are released, heart rates increase, pupils dilate, blood flows to extremities. This ignited fight, flight and freeze response can lead some interesting actions. Your daughter’s growling and pushing-away behaviors are consistent with this idea. She was really trying to scare off people who threatened her feeling of security. Although she was familiar with these people, she may have seen them in a different context (in her own home when where she feels safe, for example). It may also have been during a different developmental phase when she was less aware of her vulnerability. Children with anxiety disorders often throw temper tantrums or scream and cry when they are confronted with a situation that is unfamiliar. Clinging to a safe person is normal in this situation. Anything novel will often stimulate this fear response.
Some questions to ask yourself are: Does anyone in your family have anxiety issues. This could include excessive worrying, obsessive or compulsive behaviors, phobias, or being very vulnerable to stressful situations. A tendency toward anxiety disorders has some genetic roots.
If the difficulty is anxiety, there are several things you can do to help.
Breathing Exercises shut down the fight, flight, or freeze response as the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. There are several games you can play to help her do this. Teach these when she is NOT scared.
1) The Tummy Elevator. When she is laying down, put a loved stuffed animal on her tummy. The game is to see if she can breath in deeply enough to get her stuffed animal to go up and stay up until the animal counts to three. Then as she blows out the air, her stuffed animal gets a ride down the Tummy Elevator. You should do it too. Before you know it, you will be giggling and having fun.
2) Bubbles. Get a small jar of bubbles and see if she can blow the biggest bubble she can. Tell her the trick is to take a deep breath in and blow it out slowly and carefully. Oooh and Ahhh over her great accomplishments.
3) The Marker Blowing Game. Get a marker that is completely symmetrical and can roll across a table easily. Put two of them on a table so that the long side is pointed toward you and your daughter (who are standing side-by-side). Tell her to take a really, really deep breath in and then blow out slowly to see how far she can make the marker go. You get to blow your marker too.
It is important that breathing is slow and deep. Fast shallow breaths can lead to hyperventilation which will worsen the situation.
After she has learned these techniques and has practiced them a number of times, let her know this is something she can do when she is worried. Then start using them before an activity that might make her anxious.
For new activities, such as going to a new gymnastics class, tell her all about it first. Describe it and then go visit. Pair it with a fun activity like going out for a treat after. Then she will need lots of encouragement to try. Reward small steps.
Stories about Conquering Fear
Make up stories about brave animals who conquer things that are scary by facing their fear and saying things like, “I know I can do this. I am brave and tough.” Then when she is facing a challenging situation, you can remind her that she can be just like the Brave Bunny (or whatever animal you choose) in the story.
Good Luck! If it turns out to be just a developmental phase, these techniques are still tools that will last a lifetime. Let us know what happens. If the behaviors continue or worsen, it may be a good idea to have her evaluated by a child therapist.
(There are many more of these games we use in our preschool to help kids quiet their nervous systems. Check back in a month or two and we will have a video posted under parent resources that demonstrate some of these techniques.)
This blog is written for educational purposes only. It is not meant to substitute for psychotherapy.