Q: My 14-month-old is scared of the vacuum cleaner. Whenever I try to clean he starts to cry. I don't know what to do?
A: The vacuum cleaner, from a toddler’s perspective, can look and sound pretty darn scary. So the challenge is to figure out why your child is so distressed by it. The following are some possible explanations:
- Children take in and respond to sensations like touch, sounds, and sights in different ways. For example, when faced with a fire truck racing by, some children delight in the very stimulating lights and sounds, some are totally overwhelmed and start to cry, and yet others seem to completely ignore it. Your child may scream when he hears the vacuum because it is producing more stimulation than he can handle. The sound of the vacuum may actually feel painful to him.
- Seeing the vacuum suck things up and make them disappear can be scary to a toddler.
- Children who are generally more fearful and cautious by nature are more likely to find an object like the vacuum cleaner scary.
How you handle this depends on why you think the vacuum is causing your son’s distress. If you find that your son is sensitive to noises in his environment (i.e., prefers softer music, gets distressed in noisy places like the mall or grocery store), then first, protect him from this distressing sound. Vacuum when your son is not in the house or is in another room with someone who can distract him. However, as your son grows and moves out into the world, he will inevitably encounter lots of loud noises. To help him learn to handle loud noises like these, introduce him slowly to new and different sounds but stop when he begins to show distress. Over time you will help his system handle the sounds that are now overwhelming him.
If you think that the vacuum is a scary object for him, the easy answer is to vacuum when he is not in the same room or in the house. However, you can also take advantage of this as an opportunity to help him learn to manage his fears—a very important skill to develop. During playtime, bring the vacuum out. Let him explore it while it is turned off. Make it part of a game. See how many times you and he can run around it in one minute. Sit a stuffed animal on top. Wrap a scarf around it. Next, see if he is interested in moving it around while it’s still turned off (perhaps again as part of a game) so that he can feel like he’s in control. When you think he is feeling less fearful of it, ask him if he’s ready to turn it on. Perhaps he wants to be in the next room and slowly move toward it. The goal is to help your son see that the vacuum will not harm him and that he is in total control of it. These strategies are useful not just for this situation, but for many challenges your son will encounter as he grows.