Monday, July 28, 2014

The Cautious Child: Down Syndrome, or Only Child Syndrome?

Gregarious to a fault, loved and supported constantly and unconditionally by family and peers, smart, funny, outgoing.  Graced with an extra chromosome, something that fills my head with images of people who are easily found on the dance floor, as a member of a cheerleading squad, an active participant in Special Olympics, loving baseball, soccer, ballet, swimming, face time in the spotlight of all things fun.

The formula would suggest self-confidence, a willingness to learn and grow through the trial and acquisition of new skills, carefree and flirtatious towards the lure of the unknown.  The formula would suggest a lack of inhibition, an ability to enjoy FUN things, to need constant stimulation and activity.

The only child of an only child.

Now the formula changes, begins to take on a new form, morphing into something completely different. 

I have long believed in Only Child Syndrome, and thought I'd made up the term until just now when I thought to Google it.  It turns out that there are many others like me, who can easily acknowledge and name the vast array of benefits and challenges unique to those of us raised on our own. 

One site outlined the following characteristics:

Conversation skills develop early - only children learn to converse with adults better than their same-age peers.  This is true for Samantha.

She has strong opinions, and a sense of entitlement.  What's mine is mine...

She enjoys her down time, her alone time, her comfort zone of being at home.

And a tendency to be *extra* cautious.  This one was not listed on the site, but I'm curious about its causes.

I was the same way, to a point.  I remember being terrified of learning to swim, of diving at summer camp for the first time, of strapping wooden sticks to my feet and sliding down a snow-covered mountain (teaching me to ski was likely torture for my parents and my ski-school instructor, although thankfully I'm a proficient skier today), and I even remember being terrified as a toddler being strapped into the child seat on the back of my parents' bikes. 

There's fear in not being in complete control of your environment.  I have learned that as an adult.

Samantha is terrified of swim lessons, will scream bloody murder and hold onto your neck in a death grip of fear.

She is hesitant and resistant to trying new things, experiencing new experiences, going new places, participating in a group.  Ballet classes are out of the question.  So are sports. 

We've tried.

I feel like her resistance, her caution, comes from a need to be in control.  I feel like the need to feel in control can come from having been an only child, from not having a readily-handy peer model to back you up in new endeavors.  I'm not saying that's always the case, but I find so many little similarities in Samantha and myself. 

But she takes it all to a whole new level.

I actually started this post a few months ago, but put it on ice while I took my little blogging break.  But something happened on Saturday that really brought it all back to light.  Something that really shook me up, caught me off guard, and concerned me.  Something that takes the term "cautious" and gives it a whole new meaning. 

She asked to go to the playground.  There's one in the school yard directly behind our house, and we started out there.  But she wanted swings, and the swings are in another playground a short distance from there, nestled between two rows of townhomes.  After pulling herself up onto the swing seat, she decided it was too hot, so she wanted to play on the climber to the slides and tunnels, etc. 

We've been going to that playground regularly for years now, since she was 3.  She'd always been hesitant ascending to the platform in any way other than the regular stairs, but gradually became confident with the "foot hold" ladder thingy.  I can't really describe it, and can't find a picture that accurately depicts this, but here's something similar.  The main difference is that instead of the snaking pole that is stepped on in the illustration below, it actually has small steps coming out of the sides at intervals, to climb up, so it's even safer than this.

And once she was able to climb it, she would occasionally play-act that she was scared of heights, pretending to whine about it, then step forward onto the platform and that was that.

On Saturday, now years after her proficiency on the equipment, she climbed the 4-5 feet up to the top step, then began to whine that she was scared, that she was stuck "forever," etc., etc. 

I've heard it all before. 

I continued to sit where I was, just watching, knowing that in time, she'd continue her journey and take that tiny step forward, or descend back down the way she had come. 

But she didn't.

And she wouldn't.

And she was honestly, seriously, no-kidding, in distress

Thinking she was just being silly, I walked over and asked her to step down.  She wouldn't.  I asked her to step forward.  She wouldn't.  I put my hands under her armpits and told her to let go so I could lift her down.  She wouldn't.

And then the tears started.

And she began to shake in terror.

And she began to wail.

And I'm pretty sure all the neighbors in the surrounding townhouses were wondering just what the hell was going on.

I tried everything.  I climbed up to the platform and tried to bring her across to me.

no go

I climbed up and sat on the top step next to her, my arms around her, my knee bridging the small gap between the step and the platform, begging her to just step on my leg like a bridge and walk onto the platform.

no way

I tried reasoning with her, adding a little guilt of age and ability to the mix.

again, nope

And she cried harder, and I had to repeatedly wipe her nose with her t-shirt, in the absence of anything else useful.

And the tears began to roll down her arms.

And, 20 minutes later, I knew I needed help.

Thankful that there were no other children on the playground during all of this, I called Steve, who was home napping, and asked him to come help.  He was irritated at first, wondering why on earth he'd have to come over there because his 8 year old wouldn't get down off the climber, but when he got close, when he saw how truly distressed she was, he knew

Calmly, he tried everything that I had already tried, and I was hopeful that she'd be more responsive to Daddy. 

But she wasn't.

He eventually went up to the platform and, through a tiny bit of trickery and manipulation, managed to pry her hand off the pole and guide her to him. 

It was truly heart-wrenching. 

And even more-so, truly baffling

But we had to be careful how we addressed it with her.  We couldn't be angry.  We could only just tell her it's okay to be scared sometimes

And it hurts me to even think that she'd been that upset over something that simple, that ordinary, that familiar, that irrational

What went wrong?

Could this be a manifestation of her overly-cautious nature, or something else?  An extreme example of my definition of Only Child Syndrome?  An over-expression of a gene (possibly the one for being annoying, but more likely the one for self-preservation) on the extra 21st chromosome?

My child is a cautious child.  I, before her, was also a cautious child.  Perhaps it's just a simple case of personality driven through a maternal genetic link.

I'm interested in your stories, here, about similar instances with your children with or without Down syndrome, only-children or children with siblings.  Maybe there's a link somewhere, maybe there isn't.  Maybe I'm just hoping there is, so I can rationally explain her behavior.  Maybe she'll grow out of it.  Maybe this was a one-off.




Anonymous said...

not sure....maybe she's just cautious, just because? Courtney was an only for almost 18 years. She was a bit cautious, but not extremely so. Caleb is the polar opposite. Thought he would be terrified of the rollercoaster at the theme park, but he was begging for more afterwards.
Has she ever had an accident that scared her?

Lisa Julia Photography said...

My almost 12 year old is an only living child (as you know) and she definitely has had moments at various points so far where she is more cautious....even when trying new foods! But what really jumps out at me is that i am more extroverted (though there are definitely times i seem more introverted!) and my girl is the same a lot of times when she simply didn't feel like doing 'fun' things, it was really her need to recharge her battery on her own terms. It took me awhile to figure that out, but you may want to do some research on introvert personality traits. My gut is telling me this is probably more personality trait vs a 'Down Syndrome' trait but i am no expert. Once i accepted that my girl is more of an introvert it was easier to understand all those times when she was closer to Sammi's age when she simply did not want to participate in anything 'group' or fun but would be happier reading or drawing or laying down on a blanket looking at clouds. I hope this helps!

Becca said...

Thank you so much for commenting, Lisa!! You bring up a good point and a reminder...I suspect that often I see what *I* think she should be doing, rather than accepting what *she* wants. I think it may stem from my worries that perhaps I haven't shown her enough, exposed her to enough, pushed her enough and that she is reacting to a lack of experiences she should have had at an earlier, more formative stage because of my fears of them at the time. I didn't give her swim lessons when she was little because *I* was afraid something would happen. I didn't get her involved in ballet/sports/scouts/whatever because she had shown a tiny bit of resistance once and *I* was afraid it was too soon.

Amy said...

Our daughters are so much alike! I could easily describe a half-dozen experiences like the one you wrote about. Like you, I wonder whether it's Down syndrome or Only Child Syndrome. What I do know is that it gets better. Emma is still extremely cautious, but is willing to try so many more things than she used to be. Hang in there, mama!

Missy Futrell said...

One more thing I'd like to add, he also will scream bloody murder if you try to help him swim. Just try putting your arm under his tummy is a no go. He also really will turn down popsicles, ice cream, and pizza because he hates anything on his hands.

Becca said...

To be honest, we never even let her fall down. We kept her wrapped in cotton balls from day 1 and perhaps over-protectes her. Maybe *that's* the problem...

Becca said...

Ah, Amy, that is so good to hear!! You and Emma are definitely the ones I look to for the future in this great journey!! Thank you. :-)

Becca said...

I sometimes winder, Missy, if some of her issues may be sensory. I know *some* are, such as the ones related to certain noises, but the others are not. The triggers are always just so elusive to me! The messy hands strikes me as a sensory thing.

Missy Futrell said...

Wait, my initial comment didn't go through. Trey is super cautious, he will not climb a climber thingy, he will not attempt the monkey bars. I begged him to let me hold his legs and he was so nervous he let me but then started crying and screamed and let go. He used to cry when you put him on the swing (he loved it when he was 2) when he hit 3 no more swings. He has finally started getting on the swing but only swings a very little bit. He does not sing or dance like his peers, in fact he hates it. He will sing a bit to movies he likes but very low. Also he talks alot at home but get 2 or 3 people together and forget it. If the attention is on him, like his birthday he has a look on his face like pure fear sometimes. I swear he has anxiety but have been told he is a Sensory avoider.

Mardra said...

I have 2 brothers who are *crazy* and adventurous. I have a father who can be reckless in his lifestyle choices, let's say. SO - I'm not an only child. I say that these boys live their lives looking for pleasure and I live mine avoiding pain. Now - I have an only child. He is very cautious and I know/suspect/accept that my fears are passed on to him, even when I don't want them to be.
Back to me. This situation that happened to Sammy happened to me once as a girl. I climbed into a treehouse that I never really *loved* getting up into, but you know, I did. Then one day, I got up and I Couldn't. Get. Down. I was as you described your girl, terrified. My brother had to go get my father who tried everything as well. He eventually did cajole/coax/whatever me out of the treehouse. The images are not exactly clear in my memory, but the fear is. SO, I can't answer any of your questions but can say that this visceral response may be a natural part of pushing and reaching limits, eh?

Becca said...

Mardra - you mentioned that *your* fears are probably being passed on to Marcus. That's very interesting. I remember one late afternoon when we went to the playground, I started to get bored and didn't really want to be there much longer, so I told Sammi we had to hurry home before it got dark. Uh, we live *right* by the playground, and there was still about 1/2 hour or more of light left. She is always really cautious now of what's going on in the sky when we're there, or out. She'll say, "Mommy, we have to go home now, it's getting dark!" when it's nowhere near dark. Makes me feel bad for putting that thought into her head, especially since she may have enjoyed herself more if she weren't worried about getting home before dark. Not like anything bad would happen when it gets dark!

Leah Spring said...

I would't call this a DS thing OR an only child thing. I think its just her. Angela it the polar opposite. She has no fear of ANYTHING. Although she had older brothers, they are significantly older than her so she's more like an only and was for 14 years until we adopted the other four. Axel is extremely cautious, but I've decided its due to lack of exposure to news experiences. Asher has no sense of caution at all. Abel actually has some self preservation skills! He is cautious, but is willing to try something new with guidance and after a couple of times will do it independently, proud of himself for his accomplishment. So far I'm finding Audrey to be a bit more like Abel.

Lisa Julia Photography said...

Rebecca, i think sometimes a parent or any child worries that they aren't exposing their child 'enough' to various things. If it makes you feel better, we DID do 'baby swim lessons' when Natalie was not quite two (i think) and it was a NIGHTMARE. Instead, i waited till she explored water on her own, on HER terms and then when she showed no fear of the sand/water etc, that's when i went ahead with lessons, but by that time she wanted to learn to swim so she could go in the deeper parts of the pool. With ballet, i told her she could do it when SHE for her, she was 4 years old. I tried to 'push' her to do 'Jazz/Hip Hop' when she was 7 or 8 but she HATED the music and asked if she could 'only ever' do ballet, and that's what i've stuck with. I could have 'forced' her to try something new with the other types of dance but what need did it fill but my own, trying to make sure she was if HER desire to ONLY do ballet was flawed....even now that she plays an instrument, the one i wanted her to play is not the one SHE wanted to play...but...she plays flute beautifully even though i think she would have played trumpet (my instrument) just as well ;-)

Lisa said...

Cate is the same age (but not an only child) and tends to be pretty outgoing/adventurous but we have had experiences like this before as well. I feel like she has sensory issues at the playground as well - like she'll climb the highest ladder but won't walk across a platform that you can see through - you know that lattice like metal flooring? Even at horseback riding - which she absolutely loves - she'll have a day or period once in a while where she'll say she needs to get off and acts really scared. The only thing that makes sense to me is that sometimes her sensory issues which normally she can deal with pretty well just overwhelm her ability control them. When it happens doesn't seem to be a result of anything I've done (although I frequently try to blame myself) but a combination of her state of mind, the situation, and some unknown factors. I am starting to think that all the analysis in the world won't help me figure out how to prevent the situations because my mind just doesn't work the same at Cate's. I try to teacher her how to recognize the feelings that proceed the terror and to use breathing to focus herself and calm down. Some times it helps, sometimes it doesn't - guess time and experience are the only really teachers.

Kerri Ames said...

I JUST had this conversation with some one. Is it typical behavior or behavior due to their disability. Finding the balance (and the language to express) between the two parts of our child's make up is sometimes so difficult. We want them to explore the world and hope they overcome their fear/caution. At the same time we don't want them to be hurt/scared or be held back because of their disability. They do so much in spite of it, after all.

Boo does something similar. where she is perfectly fine with something like the play structure then BAM road block. With her I thought it was more she suddenly became more aware of the structure's height. Where before she was afraid to go up suddenly something clicked and she was afraid to go down. Maybe that is what happened to Samantha? That suddenly the ground was SO FAR way, something she hadn't realized before?

Out One Ear - Linda Atwell said...

Oh, Rebecca--how awful to see your daughter in distress and not be able to do anything, let alone comfort her. I don't recall Lindsey doing something like this. She certainly had other issues. She often says she is afraid, but continues doing what she was doing. Doesn't make any sense. Will Samantha talk about it now? After the fact? Maybe she will provide some insights if asked in a sit-down, calm setting, i.e. the comfort of her home, bedroom. I'd at least try and see if she could tell me what scared her so. And maybe she won't know. A little concerning since going to the park was her idea. My heart goes out to you and your beautiful girl.