Children set fear gauges to the reactions of their elders

Dear Patti,

My mother-in-law, Claire, is truly a good person and I deeply care about her, but for as long as I’ve known her she’s always been very anxious.

Claire is a beautiful woman except that she has this chronic, desperate look on her face and an air of expectancy and neediness that seems to push people away. My husband and I have talked about it and he says she has been that way all his life. Since it doesn’t seem like she can help it, I have accepted her as she is — until I had a child.

Ella is an amazing 2-year-old, and my husband and I love and adore her. Claire is obsessed with Ella, and it is wonderful in many ways for Ella to have such a loving, giving and accepting grandmother. The problem is that Claire has practically made Ella her whole world and gets anxious about Ella every time she sees her. I’m concerned it’s unhealthy for our daughter.

When Ella first started walking, she was a total free spirit. She’d toddle off as fast and far as she could without even a backward glance. Occasionally, she’d attempt to do something dangerous. One time when Claire was visiting, for instance, Ella almost pulled a tablecloth off a table laden with cups of hot coffee. This scared all of us, but it scared Claire so much that — to ensure Ella’s safety — she has been making her stay constantly close to her whenever they’re together, which is frequently. Due to her own anxiety, she’s always giving commands to Ella, such as “Don’t pick up that rock, it’s dirty,” “Watch out, don’t run so fast, you’re going to fall,” and “Don’t go so far away, come back near Grandma.” I’m afraid she’s scaring Ella due to her own fears.

Lately we’ve been spending a lot of time with friends who have toddlers the same age as our daughter. While the other tots are walking and exploring, Ella hides behind my skirt or behind Claire and won’t leave us for a second. I don’t think that’s right and I’m worried that, in spite of her good intentions, Claire is being too controlling and fearful. I keep trying to coax Ella to play with children but she retreats even further. Claire, in turn, thinks our daughter has become so shy because I push her too much to be social with other kids. Both Claire and I read your column and value your opinion and want to know what you think.

  — Isabella

Dear Isabella, 

I agree that you don’t want to give Ella the message that the world’s a scary place, nor do you want her to feel she has to engage in activities just to put you at ease. While your concerns about her becoming more sociable are valid, part of the problem may be that she’s still very young and playing with other children in different surroundings is a new experience.

At around 18 months, children often gain a heightened awareness that they’re separate individuals and want to start exploring their environment. This can be an exciting time for parents as they watch their children’s curiosity develop. If a parent or grandparent repeatedly shows fear whenever an adventuresome streak emerges, however, the toddler might get the message that the world isn’t safe and can then become timid and afraid. For example, if your child joyfully reaches to pet a puppy and both the child and puppy are safe, respond happily rather than flinching in fear. If she runs back to you with uncertainty when seeing the puppy, gently reassure her and soon she’ll be off exploring again.

If you start pushing Ella to go and play after she has been trained to stay nearby, she may become confused. After she gets comfortable and sees other toddlers play, she’ll eventually start to join in. In order for this to occur, however, you, your husband and Claire need to look for Ella’s lead (after you’ve established she’s safe with appropriate boundaries) and then be quick to respond with encouragement. The words and body language you use should be free of tension or threat and convey to Ella that it’s her own choice to stay close or go play. This is very important for Claire to understand and work on. If Ella continues to be inhibited, arrange a play date with just one child in a safe area that she’s used to and then gradually ease her into play dates with one or two additional children. 


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.