Last year on Facebook, one of my college friends shared that she had a parenting problem: her daughter was terrified of taking a bath. The situation had gradually gotten worse to the point where her daughter wouldn’t take a bath at all. So my friend was asking friends and family for advice on how to handle the situation.
It intrigued me because while I’ve worked with teenagers and adults with anxiety, it seemed like dealing with a child’s anxiety would be different. While we didn’t have any anxiety issues popping up currently, we did have some last year with Evan and when I was young, I got anxious about certain things too–so I’m sure it runs in the family. It’d be good to think more about it when we weren’t in the midst of the emotions or behaviors! I was curious to hear what people would suggest to my friend. The advice I liked the best was to gradually work back up to a bath, step by step. In the counseling world, this is a behavioral therapy technique called “systemic desensitization” or “gradual exposure therapy.” Little did I know that a year later, I’d be implementing that technique in our home!
In December our family traveled to Wisconsin to celebrate the holidays with my family. We stayed in a hotel in Wisconsin Dells that had an indoor water park (multiple pools with different themes)! This wasn’t our first time to this hotel, but last time we had ventured here, I was pregnant with Evan, which seriously limited what rides and slides I could go on. Basically, I was only allowed to “ride” the lazy river! So I was excited to try out all the slides, shoots, and other water activities I had missed last time. Ryan LOVED all the water parks had to offer for a second time, Evan had a BLAST playing in the water and going on some smaller slides, but Makenna absolutely HATED it. She didn’t want to go near any of the water (we did a little of the lazy river with her–she sat on top of me in the tube, staying almost 100% dry), hated how loud it was, seemed to be cold (even though it was very humid and warm in the pool areas (like her dad, she is very sensitive to temperature)), and made it clear how miserable she was!!!
Little did we know how her waterpark experience would haunt us after the trip. The first time I tried to give her a bath at home, she melted down. She screamed, cried, kicked, and climbed out and away from the water as quickly as she could. She didn’t like the sound, she didn’t like getting wet, she didn’t even want to be in the bathroom when Evan was in the tub and she didn’t have to be. She was not going to take a bath!!! Wow. Bath anxiety. I didn’t want to traumatize my child, but she also needed to be clean and to be able to take a bath! Fun. Fun. Then I remembered the Facebook discussion a year ago. Okay, time to see if systemic desensitization actually could work in this situation.
The first thing to do when using this technique was to break down taking a bath into a set of steps. What could be the least threatening water or bath-related activity we could do with Makenna? How could we help Makenna experience water again in a safe and fun way? That’s where we would start and then build up to taking a bath “normally.” I tried to be mindful of how loud the settings were, how warm or cold she might be, and focused on keeping it light and fun.
Here’s the steps we took:
4.) Playing with water in the kitchen sink, with a shirt and clean diaper, sitting on a towel, and adding water into the side she was sitting in (this worked really well—we did this step several times until she was not “complaining” when I added water–I used a freshly changed, regular disposable diaper because I didn’t want to signal to Makenna that we were going “swimming” with a special diaper and wanted to be able to remove it easily if necessary (swim diapers don’t come off as easily, which is good in pools, not helpful with what I was trying to do…the disposable diaper absorbed CRAZY amounts of water but it worked).
|This is disposable diaper after absorbing bath water. Its kind of hard to see but it is 1.5 to 2 inch thick!!!|
5.) Playing in the empty bathtub, sitting on a towel, and partially dressed
6.) Playing in the empty bathtub, sitting on a towel, partially dressed, with water going into the tub (she “complained” about this, but was not hysterical like she had been in the past)
Last week, we finally arrived at our goal of Makenna taking “normal” baths again! Whohoo! And it was a great way to utilize a psychological technique with a child in the process!
I loved that we gradually addressed what Makenna feared in a gradual way. We didn’t force her to just take a bath, we eased into it. And It was AWESOME to see her smiling in the bathtub and having fun instead of melting down! The icing on the cake was tonight when Evan had gotten in the bath already and Makenna was clamoring to get in! She couldn’t get undressed fast enough. : )
*If you’re a parent with little ones, what have your children feared or had anxiety about? How have you handled your children’s anxiety or fears?