A few months ago, Mae asked me yet again if we could get a cat. We tried to appease her desire to have a pet with Sparkles, her beloved fish that we got her for her 4th birthday, but it seems her inability to cuddle with and harass him has left her wanting more.
Rather than say “no” again, I told her she could get a cat…when she was 25 years old. It was a half joke, but she latched on to it and got super excited. “Ok!” she exclaimed, seemingly unaware of how far away another 21 years would be. Nevertheless, she now had hope for the future and something to look forward to, and she was happy.
We were driving in the car recently, and she was talking about how excited she is to get a cat when she’s 25, when she says in a panic, “Will you still be alive then?”
Mae has been worried about death – specifically, her own death and our death – since she was 3 years old. It seems crazy to me that such a little person could even grasp the concept of death at such a young age, but that’s Mae – a sensitive, precocious, anxious little human who worries about things beyond her years.
It’s not always easy to know what to say to her or how to handle her. I mean, I wasn’t expecting to have to answer the “death” question for quite a few more years. But, it’s not just concern about her mortality that causes Mae to worry. There are so many triggers for her, and every day, it feels like any one of the following landmines could set her off:
–Falling out of routine: Mae LOVES routine and familiarity. I know a lot of kids do, but she really, really is happiest when she knows exactly what is going to happen each day.
–Making a change: In a similar vein, she HATES change – even the smallest changes. For example, we recently introduced gummy vitamins into the girls’ diets. Mae hates sweets (crazy, I know), so unlike 99% of children in the world, she found the delicious grape gummy vitamins to be so repulsive that she gagged and almost threw up on them for an entire month. So, I researched other vitamins and found a brand that had amazing reviews, all of which said their kids absolutely loved the taste, and I bought them. When I gave her the new and improved gummy vitamins, she had a meltdown and, through her sobs, told me how much she loved the old vitamins. I kid you not. This was not a meltdown about the taste of the vitamins. She simply has THAT much of an extreme reaction to change – even if it’s a good change.
–Losses: As I mentioned, she’s particularly sensitive to death and losing things, so she mourns all losses. I threw away an old toothbrush of hers one night, and she was beside herself about the loss of the toothbrush and tearfully cried, “I didn’t even get to say goodbye!!”
–Being on her own: Mae and my niece, Charlie, are only 3 months apart, and as you might imagine, they’re BFFs. They take dance class together, go to summer camps together, and are basically inseparable. But, they’re not in the same school district. When it came time for preschool, and Mae had to go to school without Charlie, she was a basket case. She cried about going to school for almost the entire year. She never acts like this except when she’s alone, and I’ve come to realize that she needs a safety net. This safety net is typically me or whoever is watching her for the day, but Charlie also acts as her safety net much of the time. Without any of us there, she really struggles.
–Disasters: Mae worries about everything, including hurricanes, tornadoes, ambulances, and police cars. We had to stop watching the nightly news because she was paying such close attention and getting so upset about natural disasters and other things in the news.
As you might imagine, most days DO involve one of the above triggers, and so we’ve had to come up with some creative ways to handle Mae’s “unique” personality:
–Compassion and patience: As difficult as it can be sometimes, we try to muster up as much patience and compassion with her as we can (I’m a bit better at this than Nate is 😉). I remind myself that she’s this very little person with very big thoughts, and this world must look pretty scary to her. I give her a big hug and explain things to her as best I can and answer her questions (or at least the first 20 questions!).
–No surprises: We don’t “spring” anything on Mae. She’s not someone who enjoys surprises – not even good ones! She would much rather know something is coming up and look forward to it, so we try to give her lots of time to process, ask questions, and get comfortable with any changes.
–Help her visualize the change: Whenever we’re switching up her schedule or doing something new, I usually walk her through what it’s going to look like and how it will impact (or not impact) her day. For example, we sent her to a summer camp a few weeks ago. Rather than springing it on her on Sunday (“You start camp tomorrow!”), I started talking to her about it a full week in advance. Her first reaction was “No, I don’t want to go!” (even though Charlie was going to be there). So, I walked her through what her day would look like during that week: “You’ll wake up, eat breakfast, watch Pinkalicious, get dressed, and then head to camp! Then you’ll come back home, eat lunch, and play.” We talked about it every day, and I could see her physically start to relax the more we talked about it and the more she got some of her questions answered. There were still some things she was anxious about – “Who are the teachers? What will the classroom look like?” – and I just told her that I wasn’t sure, but I would be right there with her and wouldn’t leave until she was comfortable.
–Tough love: Nate and I both agree that the only way for her to get over this is to push through it, and so we force Mae to do lots of new things with new people in new places. We sign her up for classes, encourage her to make new friends, and switch up her schedule on purpose periodically. The more she learns to breathe and cope, the easier it becomes for her. Life is nothing if not change, and the sooner she learns to accept that, the happier and more well-adjusted she’ll be.
Full disclosure: Like so much in parenthood, we’re just muddling through this and making it up as we go. No one knows all the answers, as far as I can tell, so we hope that we’re making the right decisions and helping her to become a little less anxious and a little more easy-going. And we’re hoping we’ll still be here in 21 years when Mae finally gets her first cat. 😊
About Katie Stansberry
Katie Stansberry is a work-remote mom of two sweet girls and the creator of Breastfeeding Bliss. After struggling at the beginning of her breastfeeding journey, she wanted to create a happy place where breastfeeding moms could find practical tips, positive inspiration, and the newest and best breastfeeding products. On her "Back to Bliss" breastfeeding blog, she shares her personal stories and tips for making breastfeeding and motherhood an easier and more enjoyable experience.