Recently parents have written to Janet with concerns about their toddlers who are venturing back into the world post-Covid and seem afraid to interact with other children and adults. Several parents even use a similar description of their child seeming ‘frozen’ as they watch activity on a playground but refuse to join in. Janet offers some insight about what’s going on in these toddler’s minds and advice about how to support them during this transition.
Transcript of “Helping Toddlers Get Their Social Mojo Back”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I had the idea to try something a little different, going through my inbox and pulling out some of the questions that are in the same vein so that I could do one podcast incorporating several questions. One thing I discovered is that I’m actually really good at making a connection between disparate things, which reminds me of the difficulty I used to have with multiple-choice tests, where I just wanted to say “all of the above” because I could figure out a way to connect all of them. But anyway, I settled on a few questions that I received that are all about transitioning to a new normal, now that, hopefully, the pandemic is mostly behind us and children are starting to socialize again. We’re all starting to socialize again, and there’s some difficulty children are having in the transition.
Okay. So, I’m going to start by reading one of the emails I received. So, here we go:
Hi, Janet. Thank you for all of your work. I’ve read your books and learned so much from your podcast. My question has to do with having a COVID baby. My son was just six weeks old when our region went into the first complete lockdown. We’ve worked hard to keep him safe. I was planning to go back to work part time when he was 12 weeks old, but was able to stay home with him full-time in response to the pandemic. We have seen close friends out of doors and at a distance periodically and regularly FaceTimed with family, both for our own sanity and to share him with the people we love in a way that felt safe. Now that all adults in our sphere are fully vaccinated, we are moving towards ‘normal socializing.’
I took him to see my family for the first time, since he was two weeks old. And what became clear is that while he is very social and outgoing from a distance, he seems deeply distressed by another adult touching or holding him. He’s 16 months old and I know that separation anxiety is normal for a child his age, and that it is likely exacerbated by his experience of isolation due to the pandemic. My question has to do with how to best think about supporting him. It seems to me that the situation calls for a nexus of two positions from your work. One, asking a child and respecting their response when a relative or other person wants to hold them and politely declining if your child indicates no. And two, having a boundary and allowing for and welcoming the feelings your child has about that boundary, without changing said boundary.
My family and my mental health need for me to go back to work part time. What does it look like to introduce a babysitter or daycare to a child who is frightened of being touched by another adult? What kind of balance should I strive for between respecting his consent, regarding being touched by another adult, and considering having another caretaker as a need of our family and therefore, a boundary?
On our visit to my family, I really tried to stay very calm, warmly encouraging, and empathetic when he was freaking out about being touched to avoid giving him the message that he was correct and needed me to swoop in and rescue him. By the end of the four day visit, he actually reached his arms up once to my mom and once to my sister, requesting to be picked up when he realized that I wasn’t in the room with him and got scared. It seemed like he realized they would help him by bringing him to me.
They did. I was very encouraged by this. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who has versions of this question. Thank you again for all you do.
Okay. So, one of the things I appreciated about this note and actually all the notes that I’m going to be sharing today is how much these parents get it, at least they get what I’m trying to communicate. Yeah, she nailed it with the nexus of the two positions, respecting our child, and also sometimes having to be the adult that sees beyond what our child wants in that moment and has to have a boundary like, “I need to leave you with this person now.” Children are able to transition into new experiences, but most of them will have some kind of emotional process around that. There are the rare few children that, sure they’ll do something new and not have any uncomfortable feelings about that.
I was not one of those children. I’m still kind of like that. They had a report card in my kindergarten. I remember it was not about letter grades, but there were like three check boxes if you’re able to do something or you’re still struggling to do something, or you are quite capable of doing something. And the one I struggled in was “meets new situations with confidence.” That was something that my teacher noticed was difficult for me. I think I even had that two years running with two different teachers. And that makes sense to me where I am now. I remember being very fearful. I remember having a difficult process around starting a new class. And from what I know about the way I was raised, I was pitied for those feelings and talked out of them somewhat. I didn’t feel empowered in expressing them, that it was normal to have them.
And it really, really is. It’s very normal and expected for even children that might not be considered highly sensitive… life contains so many transitions for them internally, in their family life, and this is another big one that a lot of children are facing. Going back to school, back to play with friends, transitioning to a new caregiver, being around a lot of other people again.
So, I just want to frame this, that, yes, this is absolutely normal and expected for him to be having a transition. And at 16 months old, he’s also at the end of the classic months for separation anxiety. So, there’s that as well.
One thing I zeroed in on is she said, “He seems deeply distressed by another adult touching or holding him.” And I don’t know that I would assume that he’s deeply distressed. Sometimes children, because they do express things so fully, they put it so out there, it does seem like it’s stronger and deeper than it maybe is.
I mean, I’m not saying I know what this boy is feeling, but the way I would perceive it to help him is that he’s just saying, “Hey, I don’t know these people. I don’t want these people to touch me. This is weird. No, I want to stay with you, that you’re the person I’ve been hanging out with all these months.” Oftentimes, children in a transition are seeing those kinds of things and they’re not saying this is such a deeply distressing, scary thing. And why does it matter how we perceive? Because the way we perceive will decide how we feel about it ourselves. If we feel anxious or that he should be okay with all this and what’s wrong with him, if we feel like, “Oh my goodness, he’s deeply distressed and disturbed by this,” then it’s going to be harder for us to do what this parent is actually doing, which is trusting his process.
And that’s what children need from us most, to trust that child’s individual process around this individual situation, and this unique transition. As she said, this is exacerbated by his experience of isolation due to the pandemic. Exactly. So, how do we balance our wish to respect him with also not accommodating, and as she said so well, not giving him the message that he’s correct? That this is a very scary situation that his parent agrees with it by swooping in and rescuing him?
So, finding that balance where we’re being respectful to his wishes, but we’re also not afraid of his feelings, and he has a right to them. Expressing those feelings is exactly how he will get from point A to point B. If he can feel comfortable in that discomfort period, he will transition successfully into this next phase.
The way that would look, she says, “On our visit to my family, I really tried to stay very calm, warmly encouraging, and empathetic when he was freaking out about being touched.”
So, yes, this parent sounds like she’s handling it all brilliantly, empathizing, not in a way that pities, “Oh gosh, you don’t want to be touched,” but, “Wow, yeah, that’s different. She’s touching you, you didn’t like that. Maybe that seemed too soon for you, we’ll give you a little more time.” So, giving him that time, but responding and reflecting his feelings in a way that shows that you expect them, that you welcome them, and you’re interested in them, and you’re not afraid of them. I would know in your heart, he’s going to be able to do this.
She says, “By the end of the four day visit, he actually reached his arms up once to my mom and once to my sister, requesting to be picked up when he realized that I wasn’t in the room with him and got scared. It seemed like he realized they would help him by bringing him to me. They did.”
So, yes, that’s very exciting. That’s just proof he’s on his way and he’s just in the middle right now.
It sounds like this parent really is respecting him and also respecting his process and not approaching it with her own fear and concern that he’s not capable or that it’s never going to happen. So, it will happen. He’s doing it in his small way. And then, yeah, if she needs to leave while she’s with them and go to the bathroom or do something, she should absolutely leave and let him decide whether he wants to go on someone else’s arms. And now that they’ve done this thing where they brought him to her, it’s also fine for them to not bring him to the parent, if she’s busy, especially, but allow him to maybe share his feelings in their arms.
And that’s what I would do if I was a caregiver that was coming in to take care of someone else’s child and the child was left with me. I would want to encourage, rather than discourage the child to feel their feelings. And it can be the hardest thing to do to let them grieve that loss of that person for a few minutes. Yes, it’s their choice to be physically attached to us 24/7 maybe, but that’s not as healthy for us or for them in the relationship. Relationships are about: sometimes we’re together and we’re very together, other times we’re apart. We can be all right that way too. A and he will be, but again, not without a process.
It sounds like it’s going really, really well. So, it’s not something we have to train children to, it’s not something we have to force or try to make happen. I’m not leaving you with them just to test it, I’m leaving because I need to go do something and I’m trusting that you’re with safe people who you do know a little bit. I’m not doing it. As soon as I get there, I’m waiting a little bit for you to get to know them. And I’m being clear, I’m being honest with you.
All of that is part of the respectful piece in this. And I’m letting you decide whether you go close to them or not. That’s where the consent part comes in. So, it should be an organic process. It’s not about training a child or doing something artificial, it’s about living our life with the child.
And when introducing a new caregiver or a childcare, you want to do this very gradually, ideally taking a few days where you were there with the caregiver. It’s even a little more important that this is done carefully with a childcare situation, because that is even more of a transition for a child who now has to go to a different place, be with different people.
If they’re in their home, I would have the person come while you’re there, and they’re following you around, being with you while you care for your child, doing all the things that they would do. This could just be for a part of a day or a few hours.
And then the second day you would maybe leave for a few minutes periodically to do the things you need to do and come back, check on how it’s going, and have the caregiver allow your child to feel however he feels and encourage him to share that, and just be there, allowing the adjustment to go gradually this way.
So, here’s another similar question:
Hello, Janet. My question is about my daughter’s socialization. She is a bright and active child. She started to crawl and walk very early and she was always very curious of other people, then the pandemic happened. We almost completely stopped meeting people and having play dates. After seven months in the pandemic, we started to see a couple of friends for outdoor social distancing play dates, and it all went well. She was 14 months at that time.
In the spring of this year, my husband and I got vaccinated and we started to have a babysitter come over a few hours a few times per week. My daughter adapted quickly and had fun playing with her. Since then, she had a few sitters and other than some separation anxiety at first, it all went well.
However, when we resumed to go to the playground, she started to act frozen and didn’t want to leave my lap for the time we were there. The change in the behavior happened with our baby friend too. She would have a frozen look and would not want to interact for a long time.
A few months ago, we met a new friend with two boys and the first couple of times my daughter just took a long time to be her normal self. But at the last play date, she refused to leave her stroller for the whole time. I felt like she didn’t have any fun. She looked uneasy and almost anxious if the boys would approach.
Whenever we are in an uncomfortable for her social situation, I try to just stay connected to her and do not push her to do anything, offering her activities, snacks, toys, just as I normally would. She’s almost 23 months now and I’m a little worried whether it’s a normal developmental stage or she didn’t have enough social exposure for the past year and developed some anxiety of kids. Should I keep arranging play dates or is it better to avoid the uncomfortable situations? I don’t want to give her anxiety and I’m just wondering if there’s a way to help her enjoy playing with the other children.
Okay. Now I’m going to read one more along those lines:
I have noticed recently that my daughter, 19 months, will freeze up when another child approaches her on the playground. At first, I thought it was due to overstimulation, but it happened this morning when it was only her and one other child. She will freeze and a few minutes later, will break down and sob. Have you seen this before? How can we support her? She’s a pandemic baby, so she hasn’t been around a lot of children, but I don’t see other children behave this way.
Okay. So, both of these are children’s individual transitional processes. And straight out, both I would say sound normal and expected.
So, the first one, all very promising that she got accustomed to the new carers, the new babysitter, had fun with her. So, that’s all a really good sign. This parent says she always had social instincts, always very curious about other people, and she’s still showing that. But then the parent says when they resumed to go to the playground, she started to act frozen. So, that is a child overwhelmed, but overwhelmed in a way that they are still functioning, still taking the situation in.
And one of the differences between an adult who’s a babysitter and a toddler with peers is that peers are very unpredictable. Adults, they’re sensitive to you, their behavior is predictable, it’s calm. When you’re with other children at this age, these children are very surprising. They’re all over the place. They’re not as easy to feel a sense of control around.
So, yeah, it’s a lot to take in and it sounds like that’s what she’s doing when she looks frozen. She’s watching, trying to understand how this goes, how other children behave, and what you can expect from them, and where you fit in with them, and all of those things. So, that is a healthy process.
Lots of children that I’ve worked with in my classes, they take longer. And it doesn’t even mean that they’re “shy” or introverted. Oftentimes, there’re very strong personalities that want to come in to the situation knowing what to do, taking their time, and that’s just smart.
I mean, compared to adults, young children could seem like wild animals to another child. You really don’t know what they’re going to do or where you fit with them right away. So, it makes sense that this maybe will take a little longer for a girl like this who does have social instincts and probably wants to come into the situation with aplomb.
So if she wanted to stay on the parent’s lap, I would have her on my lap and be very comfortable about that. What we want to do again is encourage that process. So, instead of feeling doubt and wanting her to get in there and play or trying to make it happen somehow, better to trust, better to believe in our child, that she’s doing it her way, which is the best way for any child, and let her do it. It sounds like this parent is doing that because she says, “Whenever we are in an uncomfortable for her social situation, I try to just stay connected to her and do not push her to do anything.”
But then she does say she offers her activities, snacks, toys, just as she normally would, and that’s the only part that stuck out for me a little. I love this parent’s attitude about not pushing her to do anything. That’s absolutely the best trusting, most confidence-building attitude we can have with children about just about anything. But I’m not sure why she’s offering her activities and toys when she’s in a situation with other children. Personally, I wouldn’t. I would trust that she’s in a very entertaining, engaging situation, just being in the presence of other children, and that she doesn’t need to be entertained on the side or by me as her parent. So, she can have the choice of: she’s with me, watching, or she’s deciding to step in. And I think that might actually be a very natural way of encouraging her to step in. If we’re making it fun for her to just stay with us, she has less reason to. And also, it can be distracting her from this work she’s doing.
One of the things I say to parents when their child is the one that’s sitting on their lap and watching, is that child’s learning the most in this situation right now. That child is studying all these other children, learning about them, the kind of learning that will help her to get comfortable and want to take a chance and go join somebody and play.
So that’s a little adjustment I would suggest to this parent that I think will aid in this transition, which is otherwise going very well.
And the fact that she said she played with the boys, and then the last time she refused to leave her stroller. So, yeah, I would just say she chose to stay and that could be a lot of things:
It could be that something happened the last time with those boys that threw her a little off balance and she wants to get a grip on it and learn more and just watch for a bit.
Or it could be that she’s reading something in their energy in that particular day that’s a little different or a little intense. She’s not sure about it.
Or it could be that now, maybe there’s something going on with her and the parent. It’s possible that if the parent is helping entertain her at these times, that she’s reluctant now to let go of the parent and the control that she feels around that.
But again, all of these come from strength, not weakness, not a problem.
The parent said, “I felt like she didn’t have any fun and she looked uneasy and almost anxious if boys would approach.” So, yeah. Fun for young children doesn’t always mean that they’re smiling and laughing and playing. They can have fun learning and watching and studying.
And if she looked anxious if the boys would approach, I would be there for her, just be ready in case they reached out and touched her and she didn’t want that.
This parent’s ultimate concern is, she said, “She’s almost 23 months now and I’m a little worried whether it’s a normal developmental stage or she didn’t have enough social exposure for the past year and developed some anxiety of kids.” So, I wouldn’t guess she has anxiety of kids, unless it’s just like the normal… yeah, it’s a little scary, throws her off balance a little.
She says, “Should I keep arranging play dates?” Yes, I absolutely would. If it’s fun for you, if it’s comfortable for you. But again, not if you feel like you have to make it work for her, if you have to bring toys and entertain her. Just being there, present for her is enough, and is actually the best thing. And trusting her to do what she’s able to do that day.
She says, “I don’t want to give her anxiety and I’m just wondering if there’s a way to help her enjoy.” So, yeah, the way to help her enjoy and not give her anxiety is that big T word again: Trust. And she will surprise you when you let go of this.
Then this other parent is echoing that situation. Her toddler’s 19 months and when another child approaches her, will freeze, and a few minutes later, will break down and sob. So, this is overwhelmed that’s got a little more emotion behind it, it sounds like. Releasing the tension by crying.
What we want to do here is we don’t want to add our own pressure. That’s all. We want to just care for our own fears around this, our own anxiety.
This parent says, “I don’t see other children behave this way.” Well, you just heard about other children, older children, behaving that way as well. So, yes, they absolutely do. It makes perfect sense since she hasn’t been around other children. You can absolutely trust this.
The freedom in this is the trust, and that we know we don’t have to do anything to make this happen. Just believe in our child and keep showing up without expectation that they’re going to do this, that, or the other. Then, what will happen is you will be surprised because they do and it will happen in a way that you didn’t expect.
And the way I would acknowledge her, the way I would handle her sobbing is to be available, not grab her and pick her up, just be there, getting down at her level, eye contact. “Wow, that seems really close for you.” Or, “This is new. This is a new person. You don’t know this person and he’s coming really close. I hear you, you have feelings about that and that made you cry.”
So, we can say just what we see. We don’t have to try to figure out: Is she scared? Is she tentative? Is she surprised? We can just say what we see, which is, “Wow, he came close and you cried.” But not from a place of pity or that we’re worried that this is a terrible sign, that she’s not going to be able to be with other children. They haven’t been around a lot of children and it’s a new thing. They will adapt. What we want to do is not add our own tension to the situation, because children will absorb that as well. And then it makes it harder for them. The pressure gets really intense. Because children will feel that we wish she would do this, or we wish he would do that. That we want this so much. Or we’re so afraid.
And we’re not going to be able to erase that completely, of course, but it’s just something to be aware of — that our own worries and wishes and hopes in the moment can just make it even take a little longer for what we want.
So staying behind them in that way, being interested in their process and their feelings, not wishing they were doing anything differently, to observe with interest. And if we observe our child in these situations where they seem frozen, we will see the wheels turning. We will see how much they’re taking in and absorbing and understanding.
I really hope some of that helps.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. There are many of them, and they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. Both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com, and an audio at Audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.