We're all born with different levels of sensitivity to our environment, meaning we each experience the sense of smell, touch, taste differently. Sometimes, our initial exposure can also shape our response. For instance: maybe the child who hates having a washcloth on his face associates the experience with a jarring noise that coincided with the very first washing. Pretty soon, the fear response becomes habitual. No one, including the child, knows how it started.
I haven't seen anything really like this addressed in your column yet, but we need some assistance. Our 16-month-old daughter is a runner, a jumper, a talker, and a water baby through and through. She has no fear of anything - or so we thought.
For months, we've had to struggle to clip her nails. For our safety and hers (we've been scratched and she's scratched herself many times), we weathered the storm of tears and the struggle to pull her hands away to get it done, but it left all of us exhausted.
At first I thought that it was simply because she doesn't like having her hand held - another struggle when we're walking.
But last night, I decided to give it a go in the bath. We've tried it when she's happy and fed, distracted by Sid the Science Kid and in so many other venues where she had previously been silly, happy and we know she's not tired or hungry...
The bath was our last hope. She's always happy and relaxed there. I gave her a set of nail clippers to play with and made my move, but she snatched her hand away and started crying. So, I showed her how mommy clips her nails (I don't, but I sacrificed some for her) and how nice it was. She smiled and played with my newly shortened nail and fingers, but started crying in what I realized was fear as soon as I made another move to do hers. She balled up and whimpered and it was then I realized that it wasn't just an issue of having her hand held. She's actually afraid of the clippers!
I ended up filing her nails down last night - it took a half an hour to do. I don't mind this resolution, but I would like to know how we might help her get over this fear. She's never been hurt by the clippers and we understand now that the battle of having her nails clipped wasn't about power, but fear. I feel so bad that we didn't recognize it for what it's been as I think we've only made it worse now.
Any recommendations on helping us help her to see that clippers aren't a scary thing? I've read up on toddlers and how they view their bodies and "selves" as a whole, so I'm thinking that perhaps she believes we're cutting a part of "her" off and that's what's causing the distress. Your help would be so appreciated.
From: Phe, Malden
As with any fear a child develops, the antidote is to provide repeated small exposures in doses the child can tolerate, gradually increasing the exposure in tolerable, incremental steps.
With fear of a dog, for instance, you’d start by offering a photo of the dog; then wave to the dog from a distance; then gradually decrease the space between the child and dog etc.
It’s a process known as “behavioral shaping,” where you break a complex action into its component parts.
But how do you do that with nail clippers? Dr. William Barbaresi, director of the developmental medicine center at Children’s Hospital, has the answer. By the way, this fear, he says, is very common. Who knew?
He recommends a many step-process that requires patience and time – perhaps as much as 6 or 8 weeks:
1. Get her comfortable sharing space with the clippers. Put the clippers on the table. Keep it simple: “Clippers.” If you feel the need to say more, tell her, “I’m putting the clippers on the table. We’re not going to use them, we’re just putting them there.” If just seeing them freaks her out, matter-of-factly put them on a shelf instead. At some point, having them on the shelf will be a non-issue. Then you can move them to the table. “This is not for her to play with them or even touch them,” he says. “This is just about exposure -- getting her comfortable being in their presence.”
2. Get her closer to the clippers: Hold them in your hand. Do not use them. Do not touch the clippers to her hand. Do not touch her.
3. Even closer. Now hold the clippers in one hand and your daughter’s hand in the other. There is no contact between hands and no attempt to cut nails. “Your hands may need to be three-feet apart,” Barbaresi says. “The distance is only to the extent the child can tolerate.” The second day of this step, you may close the gap by only inches.
4. Closer still. Your hands, one with clipper, one with child, come closer and closer together each time, until they touch. Still, no cutting.
5. Contact! Touch the clippers to a finger. No cutting.
6. Now: Clip.
Since it may take days, even a week, to achieve a comfort level at each step, keep the nail file handy! There’s no rule to how many exposures a step may take because every child is different.
"You can’t script this all,” he says. “Just inch toward the actual cutting of the nails but never go further than her reaction allows you to.” If she becomes upset at any point, back up half a step and stay with it for a few more days.
The key is not to rush. If step 1 takes nine days, who’s counting? Whatever you do, don’t move to the next step until you’ve had repeated success at the existing one. Always be calm and matter-of-fact..
The best reinforcement is your pride at her success: “Good job! I held the clippers in one hand and you sat on my lap.” Barbaresi cautions: “Don’t over-talk what you’re doing.” On step 1, it’s great if you can get away with simply saying, “Clippers,” as you put them on the table.
One last thought: Don’t beat yourself up trying to figure out why she developed this fear or that you somehow made it worse. “There’s no reason or need to reconstruct what happened,” Barbaresi says.
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