I've gotten a lot of traffic lately on Strange and Sudden Toddler Fears. I've written on this before (and included a link at the end of this post), but this is such a common question that I've decided to answer it's latest incarnation, hopefully with some additional insights. Here goes: Dear Dr. Heather,
Just in the past week, my 2.5 year old has developed a fear of "going byebye", getting in the car, sitting in the car while getting gas, going outside in the snow. She screams and does what sounds like hyperventilating, but she isn't. Her dad just went on a trip for a week and it seemed to worsen then. She used to love the snow and going for car rides. Now all of a sudden she's hysterical. I don't know if maybe she feels out of control with daddy being gone. She absolutely thrives on routine. Maybe she felt safer just staying home. She was a little "weirded-out" when my husband first came home and she wanted me to hold her, but she warmed up quickly. Any tips you have would be wonderful. Thank you.
Toddlers often develop these quirky preferences and fears, seemingly all of a sudden. Partly it has to do with their growing awareness that scary things CAN happen; parents go away, kids get hurt, things get broken or spill, etc. Yet they cannot yet totally compute how to PREVENT those things from happening. It also has to do with their OWN aggressiveness -- they see how they get mad and run away from a person or situation when they are mad, or lash out and hit etc, and worry that OTHERS will do the same thing (even if those others have never been aggressive at all). It's a completely different mindset than that of an adult (or even a bigger kid).
I would let her regress back a bit for awhile until she gets re-acclimated to her Dad's departure and return. Be extra reassuring, and stay home more when it's possible. Go out gingerly and on a limited basis, if you can, until she gets back into the swing of it. GIVE HER BACK SOME OF THE CONTROL. Allow her to make choices about going out, if you can. See if there IS anyplace she would like to go -- to the park? Grandma's? Out for ice cream? And then go there. Little by little, try to sneak in additional outings, and let her know in advance of your plans. You won't always be able to do it her way, and talk her through that. I know you don't want to go to the store today, but we need more groceries. Do you want to go to the store AND to McDonald's today, or just to the store? Giving her some choices will help her feel better. Then, as she grows more comfortable again, cut back on the rewards and incentives. You don't want her to be in the "driver's seat" forever, just until she gets comfortable again.
Try that and let us know how it goes!
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink
And here's another popular post on toddler fears (this one is about Bathtub Fears).
Dear Dr. Heather,
Thank you so much for your help! I tried your suggestions. She got very upset at first, but I talked her thru it and gave her time to adjust. We stopped at McDonalds on the way. She did fine thru the drive-thru. She seemed better doing something familiar. She may be on her way back to herself. I won't press it too much. She seems much more settled when I reassure her that daddy is coming home at night. I think I panicked because this went on for a week, and a week can seem like forever! Now she at least talks about going outside w/o panicking. I am glad to know that someone like you is available for these times. I appreciate it.
Jacki ~~My pleasure, Jacki! Glad to Help!