A friend from college recently reached out and wanted to get together. “Can’t wait to finally meet your baby,” she said over text, lots of heart emojis in tow. I hadn’t seen my old roommate in years, so of course I couldn’t wait to catch up and introduce her to my 25-pound pride and joy, Elle.
But when my friend finally arrived at my home in Tustin, my 1-year-old took one look at the smiling visitor in the doorway … and screamed.
I assured my former classmate that she didn’t do anything wrong, that Elle was usually pretty nervous around new people. Still, I wasn’t surprised when our meetup was cut short, my toddler fussing and howling until the friend left early.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last. The week before, my nervous toddler cried when a neighbor came in to drop off mail. She had a similar reaction when I took her to visit my kind, 80-year-old pseudo-grandmother. Every time Elle met a new person or saw a less familiar relative, she wailed and hid her face in my shoulder, inconsolable until we were alone again.
Usually, I tried to downplay her reactions, fumbling over some excuse as I whisked her to the privacy of a back bedroom. But each dramatic greeting pained me. I hated hearing my daughter’s panicked cries. Plus, I felt guilty when friends got that sad, what-did-I-do? look.
Our pediatrician shrugged off my complaints, saying “stranger danger” was common for children this age. But I worried. Elle’s reactions were bigger than those of other toddlers I’d known. I’d seen my niece and nephew act shy around new adults, hiding behind their mom’s leg, but they always warmed up within a few minutes. I started to worry if there was something more to Elle’s nerves.
I’ve always had some social anxiety of my own. While others look forward to outings, I usually prefer staying in. People strike up conversations with strangers in line at the grocery store, while I often need to psych myself up just to talk to colleagues at work. The more Elle cried in social situations, the more I worried she had inherited my anxiety.
At first, I wanted to accommodate her nervousness since I knew how difficult social interactions were for me. I couldn’t imagine how it was for my tiny, wispy-haired baby. At the same time, I didn’t think it was wise to over-indulge her fears. For one thing: “Never see or talk to anyone” isn’t a sustainable family rule. Plus, I didn’t want Elle to miss out on fun, friends, and important developmental milestones.
I hoped the doctor was right, that this was just a phase she’d grow out of. In the meantime, I was tired of seeing Elle distraught. I stopped inviting friends over, skipped invitations to see family, and even avoided going to restaurants. Not surprisingly, Elle seemed relieved. Maybe I was, too.
But after a couple of weeks, I got an invitation to a friend’s birthday we couldn’t miss, so I RSVP’d and crossed my fingers that Elle wouldn’t mind a casual get-together.
When we got to the friend’s house in Irvine, Elle cried at the sight of the intimate, six-person gathering. My friends made silly faces and offered her cupcakes to cheer her up, but it was no use. I carried my terrified tot out the front door, heading to a nearby park to calm down. As soon as we left the house, Elle relaxed.
At the park, I sat her down in a swing, gave it a push, and looked up at the clouds, wondering what the next few months, and even years, would be like. Maybe I didn’t mind the idea of staying home all the time, but I didn’t want my daughter to grow up with social anxiety, like I had. I didn’t want her to avoid raising her hand in class. I didn’t want her to miss out on friendships, as I’m certain I did, because she’s too nervous to start a conversation.
A few minutes later, a large group of kids and parents walked across the street to the park. A herd of little boys descended on the playground, climbing up the jungle gym while the parents talked loudly in a circle. Our quiet playground turned into a bustling party venue in the matter of minutes. The sudden noise and crowd made me uneasy, so I pulled Elle out of the swing and rushed away.
As we hurried back to the house, I looked down at Elle, who was clinging to me, her tiny fist clutching my shirt. I tried to comfort her, stroking her back, but noticed my own palms sweating. That’s when I put it all together: Maybe my toddler wasn’t nervous because she had inherited my anxiety genes; maybe she was simply mimicking the way I acted around strangers.
Sure, I was always happy to see family and friends, but Elle didn’t know the difference between a longtime friend and a stranger. To her, a new person was just a new person. I told my husband that I felt terrible for causing our toddler so much stress.
A few days later, I took Elle to the park near our house. It’s a small play area for our tiny residential community, so we rarely see other kids. But this time, another mom and her little boy were playing. At first, my daughter and I kept to ourselves, going up and down the slide, but eventually, Elle and the boy seemed to notice each other. The boy offered my toddler a pinecone; they sat in the sand, side by side, and played. Taking our kids’ lead, the other mom and I sat on the ground and chatted.
Usually, I would have felt awkward trying to make conversation with a stranger, but somewhere between my toddler’s smile and my own excitement to compare notes on diaper brands, I guess I forgot myself for a while.
Sitting in the sand that afternoon, I was so proud of Elle for being brave. And I like to think she was a little proud of me, too. Perhaps my anxiety won’t ever go away completely, but hopefully I can set a good example for my daughter. For now, we’re both just trying to be a little less afraid. We’re taking baby steps.
After a few minutes of playing, Elle stood up, apparently more interested in the swings than her new friend, and I followed her to the other end of the playground. We stomped through the sand, and I lifted her into the swing, playing on our own again, for at least a little while longer.