The elephant in the…crib?

There’s been a lot of talk about elephants as of late. No, we’re not watching a lot of Animal Planet nor have we been to the zoo. It started with a visit my two-year-old, Ellie,  made to this restaurant with her grandparents back in July.  It’s a cool place, for sure, but, when you’re a child who is somewhat sensitive to sudden loud noises, a 10 ft.-high mechanically-operated animal that spontaneously erupts into boisterous behavior, can be a bit daunting. There are several of them at this restaurant but the elephant is what really scared her.

We talked a LOT about the elephant after that visit.  Mostly, she just had a lot of questions about the elephant. She wanted to know where it was and what it was doing at all times. We gave her answers the best we could.

Then a weird thing happened…on our way back from the East Coast, where we’d spent a week visiting family, Ellie’s elephant awareness heightened. All of a sudden, elephants were the main topic of conversation and they were making appearances — beginning with our Jet blue flight.  Apparently, the elephant made it on to the plane somehow. There were a LOT of elephants on the flight–out the window, on the television screen, even in the row in front of us.

Upon our return home, she seemed OK for a few days and then with little warning, one night, guess who made an appearance in Ellie’s crib? Yes, indeed. Now there were elephants IN her crib. She was TERRIFIED.  Our perfect little sleeper who LOVED her crib was suddenly horribly afraid to be in her crib. And so began the sleeping with Mommy and Daddy either in our bed or on the couch until she was deep enough asleep for a transfer.

I figured we just needed to suck it up.  We haven’t had a problem putting Ellie down, basically since we sleep trained her. The jig was bound to be up eventually. Our turn had come to be the family that never sleeps – or that sleeps together.  And so when Ellie woke up at 2:15am crying, into our bed she came with all of her fidgety-ness. Soon after she fell back asleep, she’d assume her favorite horizontal sleeping position, pushing her Mommy and Daddy to the very end of the bed.  It was tough. But, we also didn’t want her feeling afraid.

A few days in, and weary from sleep deprivation, I asked for help. Being a full-time working Mom, I don’t have a handy network of Mom friends that I feel comfortable enough to call so I took advantage of the wonderful world of technology and posted a query in an online forum that immediately went out to a ton of Moms in my geographical area. Soon thereafter, I had 17 responses to sift through. The advice ranged from getting “elephant spray” and other magic potions to “rid the elephant” from my daughter’s crib, to, talking with my daughter about the elephant and finding out what scared her, to getting books on elephants and showing her how they have families too, and several suggestions that maybe it was time for the big girl bed. Some also posed that the elephant was really a metaphor for severe anxiety and finally, one Mom suggested that perhaps something bad had happened during our East Coast trip since the behavior intensified upon our return.

I so appreciated all of the responses and immediately took to using “elephant spray” and helping my toddler to address the elephant directly. With that said, I was also even more anxious considering that something terrible could have taken place on our family trip!

After another couple of terror-filled nights, desperation set in and I called my own Mom to see what counsel she could offer. My Mom has always been one to offer helpful advice but I hesitate to ask for it sometimes, especially if I’m feeling vulnerable, because, let’s face it, asking your Mom for advice, often turns into a golden opportunity for them to point out what you’re doing wrong.  I don’t even know if that’s intentional. Maybe they’re rusty from not being needed all the time or maybe it’s payback for never asking. Not sure. I just know that Moms can’t help themselves sometimes.

I explained to her the elephant situation and even that it started after she and my Dad took Ellie to the aforementioned restaurant. She sort of shrugged that off and immediately launched into her convincing analysis:

“The elephant is a metaphor. It’s not really about the elephant. It’s about her fears. If you think about it, you guys went away for the first time, leaving her for 5 days back in June, and then she started Preschool shortly thereafter. Then she went on the trip with you. It’s all too much for her! I also think she absolutely is ready for potty training and a big girl bed.”

Head explodes.

But then she goes on to offer a very helpful suggestion: ” If I were you, I would start asking her open-ended questions to try and get at the heart of what she is afraid of. ”

If it weren’t for that last bit of very good advice, I may have decided to turn in my parenting license right on the spot feeling like I had permanently injured my daughter with abandonement by going away and stunting her development by still having her in diapers.  Agreeing that this made a lot of sense, I decided that I was going to talk with my toddler, help her address her fears and then help her get through them. Yes, I could do this. I could ask questions.

And thus began the queries:

Me: “Ellie. I’d like to talk with you.” Ellie comes over. I continue. “What scares you?”

Ellie: “The elephant.”

Me: “Where do you see the elephant?”

Ellie: “With Nana and Papa.” She continues “The elephant no hurt you.”

Me: “No, honey. The elephant won’t hurt you.”

Ellie: “The elephant is sleeping.”

Me: “Yes, the elephant is sleeping.”  Of course I have no damn idea if the elephant is sleeping. It’s probably not, actually. It’s probably very much awake taunting other children. But, something told me that knowing this PROBABLY wouldn’t make her feel any better.

I then decided that we needed an “elephant action plan.” Something that would make her feel empowered to get rid of the elephant herself. We discussed that whenever she saw an elephant — and they seemed to turn up in the most unexpected places — that she would just tell the elephant to “Go away!”  This actually worked quite well – gave her a sense of authority. Whenever she said that she saw an elephant, I’d remind her of the “elephant action plan” and she’d say: “Elephant, go away!”  And then she’d turn to me and smile.  Yes, she was empowered!  This actually seemed to be working.

Nonetheless, the evening crib battle continued. And so did my questioning:

Me: “Ellie – what scares you?”

Ellie: “The elephant.”

Me:  “Where do you see an elephant?”

Ellie: “With Nana and Papa.”

Me: “Is school scary?”

Ellie: “No.”

Me: “Is Elmo scary?”

Ellie: “No. The elephant is scary.”

After several days of this line of questioning and putting the “elephant action plan” into effect and more sleepless nights on the couch, I decided that the real culprit WAS the scary elephant she had seen with Nana and Papa. Not some hidden trauma that we weren’t privy to. Just a simple mechanical elephant.

If you’re paying attention, you can probably see the irony in all of this.

In any case, feeling pretty certain that the “elephant action plan” was working, I decided that Mommy and Daddy needed to get control again as toddler was clearly not traumatized anymore and seemed to be hip to the notion that said elephant fear was definitely helping to keep her out of the crib.

And so the other night, we put her into the crib — protests and all — and guess what? After only a few minutes of crying she was sound asleep. The elephant jig was up and she knew it.

We haven’t talked too much about the elephant since. Oh, and she did use her potty for the first time this week as well. So, maybe Mom wasn’t all wrong.

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One Response to “The elephant in the…crib?”

  1. Jane Brownlow Says:

    Hi Jen,

    I’m enjoying your blog immensely. The toddler fear Ellie was demonstrating is a normal stage at this age. My neighbor’s son had the same issue with monsters. She created monster spray and after he sprayed the house a few times and realized the monster was gone they didn’t have any more issues. It sounds like your discussion with Ellie worked really well, too. You are such a good mom. I want you to know that I’m always here for you if you need another mom to call for advice. Any time…please call.

    Looking forward to our lunch next week!
    Jane

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