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Is it Really a Good Idea to Distract A Terrified Child?

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Moments after the deluge… after a big cuddle… still plugging her ears.

It had been raining for days and we were getting cabin fever. I saw a break in rain clouds on the radar, and told Margo, 4 years old, to grab her swimsuit so we could dash down to the boat harbor before the next rain squall. But… we weren’t fast enough. Half way through our swim, we had to bolt. We were walking through a wide open field when it started bucketing rain and the wind was nearly horizontal. All I had to protect us was this enormous golf umbrella!

To beat the wind, I bent down really low to the ground so that one end of the umbrella, facing the wind, was touching the ground, and the three of us were staying relatively dry on the other side. Margo was TERRIFIED and plugging her ears (it was SO loud) and dancing up and down and crying hysterically by my side. While, Goldie, on my back in the baby carrier, was watching her big sister freak out. Goldie got a little concerned too and then she started bouncing up and down in the carrier and moaning, making it really hard for me to not fall over. It must have to quite a sight to see if someone where watching!

Margo was just beside herself, screaming all sorts of crazy terrified things. “I WANT TO GO HOME!!! I’M TIRED!!! I WANT TO GO TO BED!!! LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!!!” At one point, she actually tried to run out from the umbrella, but realized that was a no-win situation. I had my hand on her shoulder and I told her, “I know, this is really really really scary, but we can’t go anywhere until the rain lightens up. We have to stay here under the umbrella.

What I said made her cry even harder and she was holding her ears and stamping her feet. Eventually, the rain lightened up and we made our way to a covered picnic area. The rain slowly stopped… Her crying and ear plugging eventually stopped… The sun came out… and then we splashed and played in the puddles before making our way home! Phew! Just like the storm came and was gone, so did her emotions.

As a ‘member‘ of the gentle parenting community, some advice I often come across is that parents should distract a child when they’re scared of something, or tell them that it’s ok, and that they don’t need to be scared. Of course, distracting a crying child is WAY better than smacking, ignoring or punishing a child (which is unfortunately what some parents do). But, preventing a child from crying does not allow the full emotion to come out and be over with.

A child’s natural coping and healing mechanism for times when they are scared, is to cry. Often, parents think of crying as a form of weakness, over-reacting or maybe that we have somehow failed as a parent because our child is acting petrified…. But, it’s not true! When a child cries, in a situation like we were in, it’s a huge way for him or her to release stress and anxiety surrounding the event.

If I had prevented Margo from crying fully during our terrifying rain experience, by distracting her or told her she was being silly, or that she should calm down, she would have stuffed those tears down her throat and probably they would have come out later anyway. I acknowledged her fear as a real feeling (children don’t make up their fears). Important to note, while I acknowledged her fear, I certainly didn’t dwell on it.

I’m pretty sure she got most of her terrified feelings out that day. Because today, as we were walking home from another outdoor adventure, we saw a big raincloud forming and when I told her that it might rain on us, she just looked at it and said, “That’s ok, we can just find something to hide under until it passes!” I’m sure there are cases when you don’t want a child to have a screaming terrifying reaction to an event, especially if it’s in a real emergency… but if the situations allows, I say to let the tears flow 🙂

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