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August 22, 2018

I’m thinking about running away.

Contributed by Jennifer Horner, Director of Education Development

Back in June, as we were driving home from my son’s Pre-K graduation ceremony, my almost-5-year old looked out the window, deep in thought and uncharacteristically quiet. This wasn’t like him. He is consistently adaptable – he is flexible on road trips, exhibits leadership instincts, and seems to “go with the flow” as challenges or new routines arise.

When I asked if he was okay, he was slow to respond, but finally replied, “Mommy, am I ever going to go to Doodle Bugs! ever again?”

Mommy guilt and surprise rushed over me. In this moment, I worried that I took his adaptability for granted and poorly prepared him for this event. I recovered with, “You’ll still go to Doodle Bugs!, honey. Kindergarten doesn’t start for a couple more months. That’s about 12 more weeks or about 45 more days.”

I kept talking, trying to give him as much information as I could, to ease his fears and provide some sort of comfort: “You’re going to have so much fun at Doodle Bugs! this summer, Justin. Field trips are starting soon and then you get to ride a school bus and go to different places in Buffalo to explore with your friends!” He said “okay” in a sad, unsure voice and we sat in silence for a few minutes before I tried again.

Mommy: “Justin, you’re so quiet. Are you okay?”

Justin: “I’m thinking about bad things.”

Mommy: “It sounds like you’re sad and I want to help you feel better. Can you tell me more about your bad thoughts so I can help you?”

Justin: “I’m thinking about running away. I don’t want to run away, but I’m just thinking about it.”

At this point, the mommy water works were in full effect and I felt frozen and confused. I continued to ask questions, and made sure to provide lots of extra hugs, cuddles, and reassurance when we got home. With some reflection, it became clear to me that he was feeling both sad and anxious. His Doodle days were coming to an end and he could feel Kindergarten on the horizon – that “in between” time of anticipation was worrisome. The unknown can be scary and it’s natural to want to run away from scary things.

I learned so much that day. I was reminded that my flexible, independent, and adaptable child is also vulnerable and unsure, especially when processing complex emotions. I was reminded that he needs me just as much as he did as an infant, just in different ways now. Most importantly, I was reminded that he’s still little – and worry is a very real part of being little.

Karen Young described it well when she wrote: “Fear is a very normal part of growing up. It is a sign that your child is starting to understand the world and the way it works, and that they are trying to make sense of what it means for them. With time and experience, they will come to figure out for themselves that the things that seem scary aren’t so scary after all. Over time, they will also realise that they have an incredible capacity to cope. The idea then, isn’t to get rid of all fears completely, but to make them manageable. As the adult in their lives who loves them, you are in a perfect position to help them to gently interact with whatever they are scared of. Eventually, this familiarity will take the steam out of the fear.”

In a recent Facebook post, our friends from Powerful Interactions compared it to “being in the middle of a bridge. Or holding on to a trapeze with one hand as you reach out and wait for the next one to arrive so you can grab hold. Others describe a transition as being Linus sitting on the floor without his blanket, watching it spin, waiting for it to be ready to pull out of the dryer.”

Though we’re still in that “in between” space before Kindergarten starts in less than 2 weeks, we’ve made lots of progress already. It was beautiful to learn that this “fear” comes with tremendous opportunity to invite him to explore his feelings and use them to strengthen his understanding of himself and nurture his resiliency, too. “This familiarity will take the steam out of the fear.”

Stay tuned! Our Behavior Specialist and Co-Director of Education, Lindsay Leusch, is dropping by the blog next week with 3 steps adults can take to support social-emotional development during this back to school season – and beyond!