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Carolyn Hax

Mom finds parenting her toddler 'heavy'

Dear Carolyn:

I’m mom to a delightful 3-year-old who is engaging, smart and shows me a new way to look at the world daily.

But lately everything feels so HEAVY. He wouldn’t take the field for his first soccer “practice,” he had his first “bullying” incident — a 5-year-old called him a “baby” — and we’re having him assessed for some food issues. He’s not good at his scooter yet, and was sad that his friends were scooting. I find myself panicking that he’s going to be a social outcast, “the weird kid,” and I can’t help but randomly pray to “just let him be OK.” I never worried like this about baby milestones.

We also just found out there won’t be Baby No. 2, and I weirdly feel like I don’t get a “do over” to use all of the stuff I learned in the first go-round.

Am I the weird one? What do I do, except take deep breaths and try to have perspective?

— Anxious

Anxious: All at once I want to reassure you, warn you, thank you for your honesty and stand up for all “the weird kids.”

Everything about us worth celebrating — art, science, literature, curiosity, ingenuity, empathy, humility, compassion — would be diminished without them.

Maybe the humanity contained in the out-of-mainstream child, writ small, can even help calm you along whichever path your child takes. Just adapt it to fit:

  • Not being able to scoot as well as his friends = the starter for the engine that drives him to try and fail and try harder to achieve what he wants. Or to work around what doesn’t work out.
  • A brush with name-calling = the start of a lifelong education, with your help, in empathy, boundaries and compassion. Teach him not to cast out “outcasts.”
  • Balking at “soccer” = the beginning of, I hope, your beautiful friendship with the idea that your child needs you to see him, not just an anychild who fits in anyplace your community offers up.

Raising a unique being — who has his own strengths, his own interests and his own timetable — to be comfortable in his own skin means not only paying attention to the feedback he’s giving you about what he likes to do, but also accepting these results as value-neutral.

For example: It won’t be good if he eventually warms to soccer, or bad. It’ll just be. It’s who he is either way. Absorb that information, adjust your thinking, adapt how you raise him, repeat.

Perspective is good, but sometimes actionable intel is better.

So is your deep-breathing idea. Actions, not reactions. We (mostly) learn to curb our messier emotions in class or at work, and this is just the parenting version. Where now you panic at your son’s struggles and differences, (mostly) learn to respond in a measured and practical way.

Accept, too, that this already tough assignment will be tougher now. You are the parent of a toddler, in Pandemia, navigating the special-needs assessment process, and grieving a second child not-to-be. Hard, harder, hardest.

So the first step of training yourself to resist the tyranny of expectations for your child is to set new, more flexible expectations for yourself. You say you feel weird having scooter dread instead of just not worrying — but don’t feel weird. Recognize instead that it’s normal to want everything to be OK; it’s normal to hit a mud patch; it’s normal to spin your wheels.

Now collect yourself and get back out there. Show your kid what resilience looks like.

Anxiety is an unsurprising response to what you have going on, to these seemingly high-stakes uncertainties. It’s also one you can overcome, with treatment if necessary (call your doctor about an evaluation), with self-care and forgiveness, and with some strategic rethinking.

If you start to pay closer attention to how nuanced those stakes really are, how much uncertainty we routinely find ways to accept, how complicated and individualized success really is, and how mastering life is more about appreciating gifts than chasing them — then perspective might just take care of itself.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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