Thursday, November 20, 2014

Holy Cups

Lately, I have felt like the epitome of the parent I never wanted to be--impatient, yelling a lot, irritated at the little stuff, stifling fun in the name of control, grasping at threats, saying things I don't really mean, and just plain being a lame-o Mom.  I have my moments...times when I don't completely suck...but those moments are fewer and farther between than I care to admit.  I find the firm voice more habit than my kind voice.  My tone can be condescending and I almost offend myself when I use it with my kids.  I could honestly beat the emotional snot out of myself if I opted to list all of the shortcomings I feel as a parent, especially lately.

Now, the excuse (why I opt not to beat the emotional snot out of myself)....every child in our family is going through something tough. No, I'm not helping them by the way I'm reacting, but let me explain the toll it is taking on me.  Liam is struggling with writing--he is a brilliant reader, amazing at math in his head, but translating that into written material (written math, stories on paper), is a struggle.  I think it is a motor-planning issue, but we are having him evaluated to try to figure it out.  In the meantime, Mom is tutoring.  I stink as a tutor because I get impatient when he is distracted and further discourage him if I let it show.  So our hours and hours of writing practice leave me on the edge of my sanity.  Matthew's behaviors as of late are KILLING me.  My patience is shot.  I have endured months of these challenging behaviors and have now, sadly, gotten to the point where i'm annoyed with him after 5 minutes of being together.  Adi is a three-nager--defiant, stubborn, rebellious, snotty at times, whiny, and screams a lot.  She throws epic fits and has drama down to a science as well as the art of pushing my buttons.  So...add all of these things up (and every Mom on this planet will do a similar calculation in her mind of the beating they are taking from their kids) and I'm a bit frazzled and on edge a lot.

The other day I caught myself resenting Todd because he gets to work outside the home.  He talks, and people listen (or pretend to).  He is compensated.  People compliment him when he does well and he is frequently praised for his impressive work. His mind is constantly engaged.  He interacts with both adults and children.  Those he works with and around, including patients, are nice to him.  He has an element of control over things that happen at work.  And, most of all, he gets to walk away from the emotionally taxing, completely chaotic life that I am feel suffocated by, only to come back rejuvenated and "fun." The kids are therefore thrilled to see him, nice to him, loving towards him, and talk about how fabulous Dad is while he is absent and can't wait for the moment he walks in the door.

When I start to resent my husband and am frustrated with my children, you can imagine the incredible, positive energy that I exude, right?  I figured it was time to do something about this and tackle one challenge at a time in an attempt to regain my sanity and just arm myself with some tools so that I could be a nice person again.  I remember that woman--the nice one who is fun, patient (well....that might be a stretch), creative, intelligent, perceptive, intuitive.  But she is a tiny bit lost. Luckily, the resourceful side of me kicked in though, like I said, in an attempt to regain some piece of that person.  I called a behavioral consultant, figuring that Matthew's behaviors are the loudest and most disruptive to the entire dynamic in our home.  Little did I expect, dude would offer me an insight that would be applicable across the board.

As I described Matthew's behaviors, he suggested that a lot of what we were experiencing was actually not attention-seeking as I thought, and not motivated by aggression or anger or frustration; rather, his craziness was motivated more by fear--fear of losing connection with us.  Attachment fears.  Now, that is something new to us with Matthew.  All kids go through periods where they experience attachment issues, and most go through it in a developmentally appropriate way.  Matthew, on the other hand, is going through it so much later than most and his ability to cope is so limited by his delays that his behaviors/reaction to that fear is less functional and more disruptive, but the need is the same.  He desperately wants/needs to connect with us and fears losing that.  His behaviors are the worst when we turn our back, are distracted from him (a.k.a. when we are talking to someone else or on the phone) or simply walking away to do something else.  And his form of "freak out" is to scream, throw things, yell at us, and engage is another behavior that gets a reaction of some sort from us.

My desire to squelch those behaviors led me to experiment with reactions in my controlling ways--firm voice (or yelling), time outs, discipline, ignoring the behavior, giving him attention in response, different consequences, and even physically causing him some kind of pain (smacking his hand...nothing abusive, I promise), etc.  I searched for trends, examined theories of motivation I was familiar with and tried my darndest to get rid of this without losing my mind. Well, when I took a step back and realized Matthew just might be scared, I started to feel sorry for him rather than annoyed by him....and my heart softened.  Talk about a paradigm shift.

The suggestion was that I need to get down on Matthew's level with a calm body, kind demeanor, and touch him, hug him, smile at him, and otherwise help him feel connected to and loved by me.  Do this until he is satiated and indicates such by walking away.  Kids have an emotional "cup" that is full of holes and leaking, thus needing to be refilled (reconnect, reattach, etc.).  As they get older, the holes start to shrink and drain more slowly.  Or, in Matthew's case, as he starts to feel more confident and secure (which usually naturally happens as kids get old), the holes will shrink.  Matthew has just started to emotionally regulate through and with us, so this new-found ability to feel calm and safe simply by being connected to us is a HUGE leap of progress for a child with significant social challenges.  I'm thrilled by it, but kind of forgot that, as with our littler children, until they start to realize Mom and Dad are going to come home when they leave, that you will come back to get them at the end of a playdate, that if someone else holds them, they will still end up with you....they need that reassurance.  Most kids don't act out like Matthew (or their acting out looks a little different), but he is quite a bit older going through this phase.

That said, we immediately started to apply this advice and it has helped the mood in our home immensely.  Before school, I make sure he has some 1:1 time with me.  Immediately after school, I tell the kids, "it's Matthew time for a bit!" and they seem to understand.  It has only been a couple of days, so perhaps this isn't the big answer to all of our problems, but with this "theory" came an epiphany for me....I don't always understand the cause of stuff and often need to examine my paradigm and theories, and there is likely a positive way to respond vs. my natural reactions which aren't always so positive.  It's the primo example of exercising the space between stimulus and response--the place wherein lies our freedom and power to choose our responses and, subsequently, our growth and happiness.  Intellectualized concept being put to the ultimate test via the experience of parenthood, right?

I also realized that this "theory" and idea of attachment/connection actually applies to all children at any phase.  As with a lot of behaviors, often our kids just need time and attention, not because they are brats, but because they need our love and connection--they want to feel "safe" in their relationships with us.  So I started to apply the same practice to the other kiddos--an idea that came to be via my sweet husband who witnessed me getting super frustrated with Adi as she was acting out and me responding with firmness, ignoring, stepping back and trying "not to give into her behaviors."  He suggested I try the same thing--to fill her emotional cup just a bit.  So I got down on her level and, within seconds, was able to reassure her mostly through body language and touch, that I was there for her.  Her demeanor changed quickly and crisis/emotional tantrum averted.

To put a spiritual spin on it, I think about how Christ responded to people when they threw emotional fits or behaved inappropriately.  He rarely yelled, didn't use a condescending tone and roll his eyes as he gave a curt reply to a lame, repeated question, and likely did not turn his back and ignore in an attempt to discipline.  He got down on people's level and connected....loved...helped them feel safe.  If we are to model our lives after Him, parenthood is not the single role exempt from that "rule" because our kids push our buttons to the point where we are not able to control our responses.

So my commitment this week (I have to make new commitments and recommitments every week...sometimes day....sometimes hour, depending on the severity of my instability) is to exercise the space between stimulus and response to fill my kiddos emotional, hole-filled cups.  Even if the behaviors don't obliterate, I think some of my grumpiness will.  And I am, after all, the CMO (see previous post).  Gotta use my power for good, right?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Liam to the Rescue!

I sometimes start my posts by setting the stage a bit and describing the landscape from which whatever insight emerged.  I never want that to come across as complaining; rather, it is intended to offer perspective.  This post will be no different.

Matthew is the tasmanian devil's twin.  I swear it.  Either that or a copy cat with perfect knowledge of my buttons and how to push them.  Main button lately--chucking everything imaginable.  I put something on the counter, he sweeps it off.  I put food on the table, he hucks it onto the floor via the walls.  I give him a book, he throws it.  He gets hold of a phone, it ends up in a thousand pieces on the ground.  This activity is not limited to our home and takes place in a variety of locations.  SO you can imagine just how much this is tapping my cat-like reflexes as I attempt to intervene and thwart his chucking attempts.  It is constant and,when it happens, I want to scream (not exaggerating) or punch something (or someone...but I don't).  The other main button is auditory--Matthew is making these ear-piercing, high-pitched, incredibly loud screams and growling at me when angry, saying things like, "pick up!" after the afore mentioned chucking, and in a lovely troll voice. And as though his vocalizations aren't effective at getting my attention (though I try to fake otherwise and ignore to the best of my ability), he likes to incessantly bang, slam, scrape, or pound anything that will make noise.  It is overwhelming to me.  I think I have sensory issues.  I'm tempted to go in a get diagnosed so I can self-medicate or give myself doctor-prescribed time outs or something.

Well, this morning came too soon--after only 4 hours of sleep (piggybacked onto the 3 I got last night as we were up with Liam puking the night before).  Matthew started to scream "OUT!" around 5:30.  I dragged my carcass out of bed and walked past his room before entering...and smelled the reason he woke up.  So I haz-matted up and cleaned, sanitized, and wiped until order had been restored.  Matthew, after his bath, ran into the other kids' room at top volume, slamming the door over and over in his wake.  That did not help the waking mood of the other two and you can imagine how things just started to build.  I resorted to begging my littles to go a little easy on poor, tired Mom.  Begged.  Described in vivid detail my exhaustion and laid it on as thick as I could in hopes that a piece of pleading might get through (you've gotta be dramatic when raising a three-nager).

I was already practicing zen breathing by the time Liam and Adi came down.  But what happened next totally took me off guard. Liam came over and said, "Mom, what can I do to help?"  I asked him to please give Matthew his smoothie.  So he took Matthew's hand, walked him over to his chair, sat him down, buckled him in, and gave him his smoothie. He turned to me and said, "Mom, I'm going to feed him breakfast."  I handed him some cereal to give Matthew to keep him distracted until actual breakfast was ready.  Liam took out three pieces and counted them, "Matthew, here's one...two...three!"  And Matthew said "three" with him.  He then started to do an exercise with Matthew that he has heard me do...."take away one, and you have one...two!"  And Matthew said "two!" with him.  The dialog continued as my patient little angel took over and handled the hardest of children with the ease of a professional therapist.  I had no idea how much he was watching.

As I reflected on that experience (that literally changed the feeling of our entire morning), I realized a few things.  First, Liam is oh so capable.  I underestimate the ability of my children to help.  I also try to protect them from Matthew sometimes--I don't ever want them to view their brother as a burden, so we are super conscious about asking them to help with stuff related to Matthew's challenges.  But they want to help because they are part of our family and they love me.  We are on the same team.  Second, I realized I am not alone even when I'm the only adult around anymore.  I often feel overwhelmed when Todd is gone--almost scared.  Sounds pathetic and wussy, but it is HARD to have unstructured time and it makes me feel claustrophobic in my own life when things start to get out of hand and I am at a loss as to how to help the situation improve.  But I didn't figure it out this morning...Liam did.  And third, we have done something right!  It is rare that I feel this way, but if the example we are setting for Liam is one of cherishing Matthew, treating him with respect and patience, trying to help him at every opportunity, then I feel great about that.

That little experience this morning was a gift--I can almost say I'm grateful for the crazy because it often breeds beautiful moments like that one!  And I'm so grateful to have my team--Liam was the MVP today!