Thursday, October 8, 2015

Big feelings

I've mentioned a couple of times that during times of transition (end of spring, beginning of summer, end of summer, beginning of fall, winter) D  has some "big feelings," and I want to write about what I did wrong with those big feelings and what I finally got right.

The main mistake I made was that I got the wrong feeling. I named it wrong. For months and months, I called it "grumpiness" and "negativity." I would look at my sweet boy and see a hundred things going right and one going wrong, and I'd see him totally lose it over that one thing. I'd see him not be able to get past it, for hours or for days. Small things: he had to wait five minutes; he had to walk a block. I'd see a little setback consume him and I'd agonize, "Why is he so focused on the negatives? How can I help him notice the positives?" I got books like What to Do When You Grumble Too Much. We set goals for positive thinking. He learned to say, "At least..." followed by something positive (my favorite: "At least George W. Bush isn't president anymore"). And the whole time, I had the feeling completely wrong.

I wasn't trying to change my kid or make him repress his emotions. I just wanted him to get a little perspective so that he would be happier. But since I had the wrong feeling - though I didn't know it - I didn't know how to help him. As a result, I tried a bunch of different strategies and the sheer number of techniques just compounded the problem. I tried ignoring, comforting, reasoning, I double checked diet and sleep, I used strictness, positive reinforcement and negative consequences, and at the end of the whole schizophrenic experiment, I had reached the end of my rope and he wasn't any happier. I got to the point where I wasn't even reacting to his unhappiness; I was reacting to the unhappiness I knew was coming. He'd collapse on the floor yelling because I wrote with a pen instead of a pencil and I'd zoom to an emotional high alert in anticipation of the yelling going on for two hours. It was bad.

And then one day, when I was re-reading The Connected Child, the clouds parted and the angels sang and it hit me. It wasn't grumpiness or negativity. It was fear.

OK, it wasn't dramatic like that. It was more like, "Could it be...?" So I decided to try something. The next few times D flipped out, I asked myself, "What could he be afraid of?" And then I guessed, out loud. I said, "The life guard blew her whistle and you are afraid that means you won't be allowed to swim" or "We said we're going to walk and you are afraid that it's going to be really far." I wasn't really saying anything that different from before. Before I might have said, "Look, we're just not allowed to swim here but we can move twenty yards over and swim there" or "We're going to walk half a mile. You've walked half a mile before, no problem." But now I was saying the words, "You are afraid." It moved the focus from what happened in the past or what is happening in the present to what might happen in the future. That's where the fear is, the not knowing what will happen in the future. The fear is that this one small thing will change EVERYTHING. Because it happened before. Maybe one day years ago someone said, "We're going for a walk" and that was what started the events that led to losing everything he knew.

I noticed a difference almost immediately. When I guess right, which is often, it cuts the storm down from two hours to ten minutes. My son is smart - in the throes of a meltdown he may not be able to articulate what he's scared of, but he recognizes when someone else names it. When I guess right, I provide him with the words, and he uses them to shout out his fear. Once he's done that, I give him some facts - not reasons that he's wrong or that his fear is unreasonable, but some facts that he didn't know. Information is the best weapon against fear. And after that he is better and we can make a plan for how to move forward.

This morning was a good example. I had told him yesterday that instead of riding the bus home from school today I would meet him at the school because I had a meeting for a committee I'm on. This morning when I went upstairs to say good morning I found him on the floor of his room, yelling about how boring it would be to wait for me at school, how he was tired of always waiting, how he wanted to go to the park, how I had pretty much ruined his day. So I asked myself what he could be afraid of. It wasn't rocket science. I asked, "Are you afraid we'll talk about you and you'll be in trouble?" and he immediately yelled, "I didn't even DO anything!" So I gave him some information about the committee, which will be planning some school events, and after that he was totally fine. He was fine after school too; he  sat quietly in the back of the room and did his homework while I had my meeting and then we went to get ice cream.

I'm not saying that this has solved every problem nor that this is how we will handle every situation from now on. He's eight, so obviously there will be times that he's just upset because he's tired or hungry or angry or disappointed. And eventually he will have to learn to name his own fears and get in control of them before they erupt. But for now, I'm glad to have finally recognized the big feelings as fear.

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