|Photo by RiverRatt3 via Flickr|
Sunday, however, was a momentous day. Bee came with me on a trip to the mall and I realized as we walked in that the Easter Bunny was there, straight ahead. One of the tricky things with fears is finding the balance between encouraging our kids to face their fears and helping them do so (since avoidance only serves to reinforce a fear), without pushing them too hard or forcing them out of their comfort zone. I hate wild mice - I sure don't want buckets of them thrown at me in an attempt to help me "get over it."
I didn't want to freak Bee out, so I let him know that the Easter Bunny was there. He was not thrilled, but he didn't cry or get overly distressed either. I stopped his stroller when we were 20 feet or so away and crouched down next to him. I reassured him that we were just watching and the Easter Bunny was not going to come over. I was also ready to make a quick escape just in case the Bunny, who was a bit slow on business that day, did start to approach us. The Bunny waved and I waved back, trying to show Bee there was nothing to fear. After Bee repeated a couple of times that he wanted to go, we went on with our errands.
We had to pass the "Bunny House" on our way back across the mall, so I made sure I let Bee know and gave him some choices: "Should we pass behind the Bunny House or in front of it?" I wanted him to feel a sense of control and not be caught off guard. I knew if he saw the Easter Bunny unexpectedly his heart would jump out of his chest, which would only reinforce his fear.
Then I saw it - the sign saying that every child who visited the Easter Bunny would get a small gift. I wondered if this might be an incentive for Bee to "be brave" and get a little closer, if I was with him. I kept thinking about what I had learned about treating phobias - preparing, giving the person the tools they needed to cope, gradual exposure to the fear (which is why we started out watching the Bunny from a distance), and allowing the exposure to last long enough that feelings of anxiety had time to subside.
I told Bee about the gift for kids who said Hi to the Bunny and asked if he was interested. Maybe. For a while we stood a few feet away from the fence surrounding the Easter display just watching. I asked Bee if he would like to stand closer to the fence, but he declined so we stayed put. I waved at the Bunny and encouraged Bee to wave too. I pointed out the Bunny was holding a sleeping baby on his lap, so gently, which seemed to interest Bee. He didn't want to go any closer, but as we got ready to leave the mall he changed his mind. We headed back. I sure wasn't going to let this be a missed opportunity!
We agreed I would hold Bee and he asked me to cover his eyes so he didn't have to look at the Bunny. Man, he really wanted his free gift! I explained our situation to the guy working at the desk, we'll call him Mr. Easter, and made sure there was in fact a gift. Yes, cardboard bunny ears - good enough! Mr. Easter whispered to the Bunny, filling him in. Over the next few minutes these two "helpers" were calm and patient and encouraging. Thank goodness! I can only imagine what might have happened if the Bunny had decided to get hoppy on us or if Mr. Easter tried to tell Bee his fear was silly.
I asked Bee how he was feeling. "Brave," he told me. We approached slowly, my hands over Bee's eyes, telling him gently what I was doing. "I'm walking over to the Bunny now. We're here. Do you want me to uncover your eyes?" He peered at the Bunny from around my hand. Over the next couple of minutes, with a little gentle encouragement and from the safety of my arms, he pet the Bunny's ear and gave him a high five! I thought I might cry, I was so proud of him! He kept hiding his face in my shoulder, then peeking back at the Bunny - just like babies turn away when they have had enough and need a moment to regroup. He had no desire to sit on the Bunny's lap and I didn't push the matter. We'd already accomplished so much, and I wanted to leave on a positive note.
In hindsight, I think the fact that the Bunny was seated and we were standing also helped - instead of a big furry figure looming over Bee's 41 inches, Bee was looking down at him. I'm going to keep that in mind for next time.
On the drive home we talked about how brave he had been. I looked at Bee in the rearview mirror, his new bunny ears sliding down over his eyes, and told him how proud I was of him for telling me how he felt and what he wanted to do, like having my hand over his eyes. I realized I didn't just want him to "suck it up and be brave," it was how he was brave that mattered - using his resources and expressing his needs. "The Easter Bunny is nice," he announced.
I'm sure Bee's fear of mascots isn't completely overcome. But this was a huge step in the right direction. And hopefully we can get our chocolate eggs now.