When No One Brings You a Casserole

A casserole is the ultimate comfort food for me.  It doesn’t matter what the ingredients are.   They are almost always creamy warm comfort, oozing with cheese.  My husband who is from Mexico does not understand casseroles and is always very suspicious of the ingredients.  He asks, “What is this, anyway?”  I say, “Cheese.”  He looks at me as though that is not a very convincing answer, and I wonder how I could have married a man who is so mistrustful of cheese.  When we brought our children home, our friends all signed up to bring us dinner for a month.  More often than not, friends showed up at our door with warm casseroles – cream and broccoli, chicken and rice, and always, always, with cheese on top.

Casseroles are often brought to people enduring some type of loss or hardship.  They are a warm expression of comfort given to remind people that they are not forgotten, given to acknowledge grief; however, not all hardships are shared.  Parents are more likely to share, “My child has leukemia,” than “I just had to call 911 and have my teenager admitted to the mental hospital.” Both situations are tragic, but in the first, help is called for on social media and at church podiums.  People flock with promises of prayers and start a dinner train.  Updates are posted and shared on social media.  Money is sometimes raised, and generosity is experienced even from strangers.  In the latter example, however, parents often keep quiet. Rumors spread, people whisper, but grief is not shared.  People don’t know what to say or how to ask.

I heard parents say once that they were collecting stories to tell at their child’s wedding.  The immediate thought I had was, “That must be nice.”   It struck me that so many of the parents I work with do the opposite.  They collect stories they will not tell.  They stay alone.  There are hurts parents can’t share –  shame so deep, wounds so raw, regrets they can’t speak, pain that never ends, and the heartache of broken children they can’t repair.  These parents suffer alone, retreating like an armadillo rolling quickly into an armored shell.  No one can be let in.  They don’t get casseroles and promises of prayers.  They don’t get invitations or sympathetic glances.

There are things inside of this rolled-up shell that no one really wants to see.   When they ask “How is everything?”, they really don’t want to know, and if they do want to know, your radar goes up.  You must protect your family.  There are things inside of this shell that are so holy, so broken, so precious, that you must retreat.  Retreat – a word that sounds like surrender, but to these families it feels like a war.  There is no time for socializing.  There is no time for small talk.  There is no time for texting.  There is no world outside of the shell.

This is the place no one visits.  People talk about these places in whispers, but no one wants to go there. The suffering is too raw.  These are the prayer requests never asked for.  These families rarely ask for help.

 

Here are some of the families rolled up in a shell:

Mental illness in the family

Mental illness hospitalizations

Incarceration of family member

Addictions within the family

Children with disabilities that don’t improve year after year

Adoption disruption in a family

Sexual abuse within the family

Families of those in fulltime ministry

 

How You Can Help a Family that is Quietly Suffering

Give a practical gift that can’t be refused

You can send a card in the mail with a restaurant gift certificate.  You can order pizza for them and tell them when it will be delivered.  You can hire someone to clean their house or pick up loads of laundry. Unless you have been in a forgotten place, you can’t imagine what these small gestures mean to a family.

Invite them over

These families generally feel isolated and are often excluded from social events because there is an assumption that their lives are just too complicated for fun.  Include them anyway.  Their lives will often continue to be hard, and a fun night out is often the exact thing that is needed.

Say Something

Don’t fill the space with false reassurances or spiritual words that minimize suffering and normalize their pain.  It is Ok to say, “I don’t know what to say, but I really wanted to reach out to you,” or “I just wanted you guys to know that I am thinking about you.”  If you have a history of similar suffering, and you are comfortable sharing that, this can be an incredible comfort.

Don’t Give Advice

If things were as simple as an outsider looking in and offering a formula for fixing the problem, don’t you think the problem would be fixed by now?  These things are complicated. These families are often living day by day, just trying to make the next right decision.

 

 


How Motherhood Turned Me Inside Out

I can remember the first time someone criticized one of my children.  My son was about a year old, sitting on the floor in a white onesie.  A neighbor was having tea with me while he played on the floor.  She looked over at him smiling and said, “Have you noticed there is something wrong with his toes?”

I had noticed. In fact, my now teen son jokes about his toes often. “Mom, God put all the good looking on my face and forgot about my feet,” he actually said this morning.  “They are some funky feet.” We laughed together when he said this.  However, when “that woman” who no longer deserves to be called “my neighbor” said that, I felt something I had never felt before.  I had been flipped inside out, vulnerable, and completely exposed.  The tears took me by surprise. There were so many, and although I was willing them – no, begging them to stop – they kept coming.  I scooped up my son, went to my room, and sobbed.  I had never felt this vulnerable before.  “I am stronger than this,” I told myself as the tears kept flowing. Later that day, I bought him a board book about baby toes and how much moms love them.  We read it over and over again, and I still can’t get rid of it because it comforted my heart to be doing something about the “foot” situation.  I read it thinking, “By golly, he might have ugly feet, but he will never know that”.  My plan failed miserably and beautifully.  He knows his feet are ugly, and he could care less about it.

I am not a person that is easy to pick on.  I grew up with four brothers.  Our house was full of boys who celebrated my toughness and dissimilarity to other girls.  I was good at taking care of myself and others. This comment would be the first of hundreds that have undone me as a mother.

As a professional, I sit in countless IEP meetings advocating for the kids I work with.  I am bold, determined, and composed.  As a parent, I sit in IEP meetings begging my tears not to betray the strong presence I need to have.  They do not listen.  They betray me every single time.  I am such a blubbering mess in those that I determined not to attend any more IEP meetings without my own IEP advocate and my mom.   Yes, I am 37 years old, and I try not to attend any IEP meetings without my mom.

Why do we feel so incredibly vulnerable as moms?  I believe it is because, frankly, there isn’t a d*** thing we care about more than our kids.  We care so much that we stay turned inside out much of the time.  We both find a Hercules strength we didn’t know we were capable of, and cry so many rivers of tears we never imagined were part of this journey.  Motherhood kicks a**.  Motherhood makes you feel like creating a new drink that mixes caffeine and alcohol…energy and calm…snatch your child out of the street and restrain yourself from strangling them!  “What! That isn’t a new drink?” you ask. Then it was certainly created by an exhausted mother.  If you are wondering why I am using asterisks instead of cuss words, it is because my children read my blog, and I would never live down cussing around them.

I thought this would get easier as my kids got older, but it doesn’t.  It just gets harder.  I am no longer the most important voice in my children’s lives.  Peers voices get louder and louder, and they are never as gentle as my voice.  Kids develop insecurities and hurts you can’t fix.  And you, poor Momma, are never more happy than your most unhappy child!  It is both the curse and the connection in motherhood.  You can’t stay connected if you don’t stay tender.  So stay tender, cry a river, put on your armor and cuss very quietly.


Unseen Kids; The Silent Drowning of Siblings of Special Needs Kids

They say that drowning is a silent death which is what makes it so dangerous.  Muffled voices underwater, limbs flailing where no one can see them, and then under they go.  I have worked with many siblings of special needs kids.  They tell the same story.

“I feel invisible.”

“I don’t even feel like a real kid.”

“My brother/sister always comes first.”

“It is my job to get everything right because my sibling isn’t capable of getting things right.”

“No one sees how I hurt, or how scared I am.”

“My mom/dad has no time for me.”

As a parent of a special needs child, I get it.  It is like your family is in a boat, and it tips over. Your first thought is to rescue your kids. Only one of them can’t swim. You hear his screams, and you swim toward him.  You know your other child is fine because she is a strong swimmer.  Time passes, and you still haven’t managed to get your child to safety. Your strong swimmer starts to weaken.  A person can only tread water for so long. Still, you don’t hear her cry out, and your hands are full with your special needs child.  Everyone in the water is doing the best they can, really.  Still, the unseen child has to be rescued, guided, or accompanied to the shore before she drowns.

Here are some helpful tips that we have learned:

  1. Alternate sleep and wake times.

My higher needs child goes to bed first, and I wake him up later.  In this way, I have time every day to connect with my daughter. Sometimes we play games, lay in bed and talk, or watch her favorite show together.  If you were to quantify the time I spend attending to each child, it would still be far from fair, but she has uninterrupted time almost every day with one of us.

  1. Make the time you do have count.

If your “unseen” child has a doctor or dentist appointment, keep her/him out of school, or at least take her to lunch.  If you are taking a work trip, take that child with you.  Even if you are just running an errand, include her and stop for a milkshake.

  1. Check- In frequently.

Think about how difficult your special needs child is for you, the pressure you feel, your inability to rest, the fears you have for his/her future.  Your “unseen” child feels all of this, but he/she is so much more vulnerable than you are.  She needs to be able to talk about her own very real grief and fears concerning her sibling.  She needs to voice the injustice, her anger, her sadness, and her jealousy of other people’s families who are not like hers.  The grief is hers also.  I have found that if you join a child well in his/her distress about a special needs sibling, she begins to be able to express compassion and grace toward her sibling.  If you can’t join her well in her distress and don’t check in with her frequently, anger and resentment grow.

  1. Don’t obsess about fairness.

I heard the phrase “treating unequal’s equally is not fair”.  This is very true.  If you have one bag of M& M’s in your purse, and you know one of your kids ate a huge breakfast and the other hasn’t eaten all day, is it fair to split the M&Ms in half?  Life isn’t fair.  One child may get more of your time, but the other child probably has more privileges.

 

We have to reach for these kids and hear them before their heads go under the water.  We have to hear their muffled voices before their faces go under water.  We have to see the strain in their muscles before they fatigue and go under. Their lives depend on it.  A child can only tread  water so long alone.  They need our presence.  They need our attunement.  They need to know that even though their needs will never be as big, they are equally important.  They need to know that even though time is not allocated fully, we see the hours stolen from them.  They need to have a voice and a parent willing to sit with the discomfort that we can’t fix everything for our kids.


Surviving Middle School When it Sucks

Let’s face it. Middle school sucks. There is this food chain in middle school, and everyone is in survival mode trying to stay off the bottom of the food chain at any cost. Kids do things in middle school that they wouldn’t do at any other age. They are all pretty terrified of social rejection, and regardless of their popularity status, they all feel rejected at times.
I spent my 7th and 8th grade years in a Russian middle school. I spent the first 13 years of my life in Mexico, so to say it was a shocking change was an understatement. I went from the top of the food chain to the bottom so quickly that I had no idea what had happened or why I was there. I had never been at the bottom of the food chain before. It was a lonely place, and “no one” wanted to be seen with me there. I mean there were a few kids that would cast compassionate looks my way, but they were only a few notches up from me and didn’t dare to stick up for me.
Nothing about me fit in. I had this green Land’s End jacket, while all the other girls had wool jackets with fur-trimmed collars. I had gore-tex hiking boots, while the other girls had sleek, tall leather boots that they changed out of as they arrived at school into high heels. I never owned a pair of high heels until I was in my late teens. They wore short skirts, makeup, and looked like college girls going to a frat party. I looked like a cross between a pioneer and a mountaineer. One thing I do credit my middle school years with is learning Russian pretty well. I learned quickly that Americanka suka means American bitch. I have always had a knack for languages like that.
Just a few months into a truly nightmarish school experience, I decided I was going to start escaping. There was an area where everyone hung their jackets and changed out of their boots that looked like a clothing area from a department store. All 300 kids that attended the school had layers of winter gear that they peeled off at the beginning of the day. There was a custodian who had kind eyes and looked older than Methuselah whose sole job it was to lock the coatroom and mop up the entrance from the constant snow that got trekked in. The entry way was right in front of the cafeteria where my lunch was stolen daily. She was a witness to it all. I asked her to let me hide in the locked coatroom area. She opened it for me every day, any time I needed her to. She was always at the front entrance, right next to the coatroom with the keys hanging around her neck. I ran to the back of the area where no one would see me and waited until the coast was clear. I would hear the keys jingle and the coatroom unlocked, and she would tell me I could leave. I would run. Every day, I would stay at school as long as I could endure, and then I would hide in the coatroom. Some days I never even made it to school because it just felt too unbearable to go. I always left our apartment at the same hour though, so my dad wouldn’t suspect anything. My dad thought I could handle anything which in some areas made me feel undefeatable. He didn’t understand that no child can handle that type of bullying well.
Here is the thing. I was not a kid who avoided school. I loved school, and I loved people, but middle school showed me what children will do when they are at the bottom of the food chain. They will do just about anything to escape. For some kids, that looks very different than what I did. Some kids escape by checking out, some by acting out, and others by pushing every boundary possible. I was fortunate to have a mom who was happy to see me no matter what time I got home and never uttered a whisper of my prison break escapades to my dad. She never lectured me on how I would never make it into a good college if I kept skipping out on school. She knew that I loved school. She saw past my behavior, understood that I was doing what I needed to do, and didn’t give up on my future because of it.
Be patient with your middle schoolers. This is such a hard stage in life. Protect your middle schoolers. If that means taking their phones away, then do it. Imagine a child who is at the bottom of the food chain and who never gets a break from the harassment because he/she has constant access to a phone. I believe this is why the suicide rate for young teens has increased. Pull them out of school if you need to. The damage done can be so much worse than a few years of being inconvenienced by homeschool or trying to figure out how to pay for another school. Individualized Education Plans will not protect your child from other children.

Here are a few rules of thumb I tell parents to consider:

When you notice your child’s behavior changing, do not ignore it.

If your child is withdrawing more, or ending up in trouble all the time, don’t wait to address it. If your child is sulking off to his/her room more, avoiding social activities, or zoning into electronics without moderation, address it. You still have so much control at this age. I have parents say things like, “I really regret giving her a phone in the fourth grade. Now she is on it all the time, and any limits I set lead to huge meltdowns and attitude.” The assumed powerlessness in this statement is very telling. You still have so much control at this age. They aren’t paying their own phone bills or driving themselves around town. Add the structure or nurture that they need, and middle schoolers need lots of each.

Don’t always believe what the school administrators or teachers say. Listen to your child’s behavior and your intuition.

I don’t know if teachers have a training class on what they should all say when a child is failing socially, but since I attend many school meetings for clients, I can say that one thing I hear often is – “This is such a kind class. We haven’t had such a kind class in a while. This child has plenty of friends. We see them having a great time with other kids.” Kids who grow up to be very kind adults can still be exceedingly cruel in middle school. Believe your child. Once I was visiting a classroom where two girls were constantly and cruelly picking on this child I was working with. I was talking to the teacher about it as she assured me how kind these two girls were. Then right in front of us as the child I was working with entered the classroom, these two girls made a beeline for her and said, “You stink today.” The teacher’s jaw dropped. I don’t believe she was lying. She just wasn’t paying attention.

Supervise their electronics appropriately.

Yes, your child might be receiving 100 texts a day, but if you don’t have time to make sure these texts are safe and free of harassment, then your child should not have an iPhone. There are ways to only allow certain numbers to text your child or call your child, and I recommend using these safeguards. I have seen texts that are sexually harassing starting as early as 5th grade. I have seen group texts telling a middle schooler he/she should just kill him/herself already. No child can handle this.

Believe in your child.

Look past middle school and the craziness of puberty, and have hope. They will settle down. They will stop seeing rejection around every corner. Can you remember doing things in middle school that shock you a bit today? You probably can. Have patience. This is such a hard age. They will find themselves.


If I Could Be Your Memory Keeper

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What I hope you remember…

Please remember how you nestled into my arms, and we read Llama, Llama Red Pajama over and over again…..

Remember how I made sure to let you know we were skipping the scary picture where baby llama was alone in bed, eyes wide, terrified of a noise.

Remember how your freshly conditioned curls left spots on my t-shirts, and how I didn’t care at all.  I breathed you in, held one of you under each arm while you took turns turning the pages for me.  My arms were always full with both of you.

Please forget the strain in my voice when I told you to stop squirming because I couldn’t read the wobbly words.  Please forget my tired sigh when you turned three pages instead of one, and we went back and forth looking for the right page.

Please remember how I encouraged you to play.  I let you climb tall trees, play on the roof, use tools, and get dirty.  I let you build ziplines, launch businesses, and always jump in creeks.  Remember how I packed extra clothes in the car, just in case you got wet, even though we weren’t planning on getting wet.  Remember how I didn’t care about the “stay on the trail” signs or the “no outside food sign”.  Remember what a rule-breaker I was. We only followed the ten percent of the rules that kept us alive; the other ninety were up for grabs.  Not drinking bleach is a good rule.  Staying on the trail is a dumb rule unless you are on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and then it falls in the 10% of rules we follow.

Please forget how tired I was at the end of our adventures.  How my laughter would turn to agitation as I was trying to get everyone back in the car.   Please forget when I didn’t have the energy to read a story at night, and I told you to “get back in bed” even though you were just coming for a quick hug.  Night-time was so hard for me.  I was always so tired, and you never stopped wanting me.  Please forget me pleading for you to get in bed and stay there.  Please forget the words I should have swallowed but instead spit out at you… unkind words that I immediately regretted.

Please remember how I fought for you whenever things got rough.  Remember how when that big boy hit you on the playground, I was possessed with an unnatural anger that even frightened me.  Remember how I always defended you, even when you were in trouble and it was your fault, especially when it was your fault. Remember how I defended who you are and not what you did.  I spoke of the character I saw in you.  I spoke the truth about you. Remember how I cried for sadness when you told me you had to miss yet another party at school.  Please remember how my heart always broke with yours.

Please forget my tears when the school phone calls came.  Please forget my impatience with you when I know you were doing the best you could.  Please, please for the love of everything holy forget any words that added to the discouragement you were already feeling, any actions of mine that confirmed what others believed about you.  Forgive me for sometimes letting fear get the best of me, for letting fear take control.

Please remember how we woke up hours before the sun broke across the horizon to do physical therapy.  Remember how I gave you an M&M after every lap you crawled.  Remember how we laughed until we cried when we had to do that horrible exercise where I had to crawl behind you and pull on your legs.  We would end up in a heap on the floor, never able to complete the activity, laughing so hard.  Remember how we pretended we were ninjas or soldiers in training.

Please forget my impatience when your body resisted the pattern.  Please forget how I rushed you out of bed in the morning, when your little arms were still wrapped around my neck, heavy with sleep.  Please forget how many mornings you and I would both end in tears of frustration and exhaustion, lying on the mats on the floor.  And to my little one that didn’t need it – please forgive the hours and years of attention that you missed out on.  I wish I had more to give, needed less sleep, had more energy, and could juggle everyone’s needs without dropping the balls.  I wish I hadn’t dropped so many balls.

Parenting is the hardest job.  It is a job that requires a paradox of abilities.  You must stay very strong and very tender at the same time.  You have to both care a whole lot and not care at all.  You have to learn to pay careful attention and learn to actively ignore.  You have to be strong enough to fight the longest battles and tender enough to comfort the deepest wounds.  You have to have a high standard and yet always choose the relationship above that standard. You have to have super- sonic hearing and also be half deaf. You have to forget offenses toward you and pursue repair even if it isn’t your fault.  You have to set realistic expectations but always believe in fairy tales.   Parenting is hard. I don’t always do it well, but I hope you remembered how hard I tried.  I tried so hard.  I made so many mistakes.

I wish I could pick your memories.  There are so many sighs I would like to breathe away.  There are so many words I wish I could take back.  Please remember how I sought to repair my offenses toward you.  Please remember that I always reached for you, and how we started the day over on a clean slate.  Remember that you can bring anything to me, anything at all, and I will always want to be in relationship with you.  If you remember anything, please remember this. If only I could be your memory keeper…

 

 


Parenting Shame

 

 

Shame: canstockphoto24272637a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.

The phone was propped on my shoulder as I listened intently while my friend was describing her two-year-old son’s first public temper tantrum.   Her first child had been very compliant and would not have dreamed of calling any attention to herself in public like that.  She said, “I was shocked when I saw him on the floor kicking and screaming over something he didn’t get that he wanted.  I was amazed at how quickly embarrassment flooded me.”  Then the woman behind me in the line smiled and said, “Honey, they all do this.  He will stop eventually.”

As she recounted her story, I felt tears roll down my cheeks even before the sadness hit me. I remembered what it was like when I had a toddler melting down everywhere we went.  I couldn’t recall one time when someone was kind to me like that.  At best people would avoid me. Often people glared at me and mumbled loudly under their breath.  They mumbled things like, “She shouldn’t leave the house if she can’t control her kids,” or “He needs a whipping,” or they would turn to their own child and loudly say, “I am so glad you know how to behave in a store.”   At times, because his behavior was so confusing and chaotic, people would gather around with cell phones ready, trying to determine whether or not they should call someone about this woman with the out-of-control child.  I was shocked by how quickly I was flooded with emotions despite the years that have passed without a public meltdown.  Although today I think about those times with sadness and even tenderness toward both of us, this momma who was struggling so much, and my sweet boy who was struggling even more, in those moments I remember feeling ashamed.

There were times when people, in an attempt to be kind, dismissed the behavior when I tried to explain it to them.  This too made me feel shame.  If every two, three, or four-year-old does this, then why I am so overwhelmed?  What is wrong with me?  When I told people that my son never napped, they said things like, “Oh, I have a bad sleeper too. I am lucky if he takes an hour nap.”  They didn’t hear me.  My son NEVER NAPPED, ever! For years he also slept poorly during the night, many nights as few as four hours.  We were beyond exhausted.

There is a proverb in the Bible (Proverbs 10:1) that says, “A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother.” This proverb strikes me as so interesting.  Why is it that the author only mentions grief coming to the mother? The author was clearly aware that a mother’s view of herself is connected to how well her children are doing.

It is interesting because the more frequently I speak out publically about parenting shame, the more I realize that every parent experiences shame to some degree. There is enough shame to go around.  Mothers feel shame for not spending enough time with their kids, for choosing not to homeschool, for struggling with anger, for beginning the day badly or ending the day badly.  There is no end to parenting shame.   Working mothers feel shame for not spending enough time with their children. Stay-at-home moms feel shame for not enjoying the time they do spend with their children.   I think that there is this expectation both from society and from ourselves that we should be able to “fix things”.  Isn’t that a mom’s job, to teach her children how to behave?  Even though most women would rally against that statement, they live as though this is a sacred truth.  This creates a situation where you feel responsible for others’ behaviors even though you can’t control anyone but yourself.   In this post, I am not referring to irresponsible parents who do not provide enough structure, supervision, or nurture for their children.  I am referring to parents who have the tendency to be overly responsible.

Shame is immobilizing.  Shame makes it impossible for us to be present with our children, and it brings about this sense of urgency to our parenting that is always unhealthy.  It makes us focus on the outcome, which we can’t control, instead of the process, which we can. We can only control our own behaviors.   Shame makes us want to isolate ourselves and lash out at those we love.  Here are some things that I have found helpful in dealing with shame as a parent.

Identify Your Own Shame Triggers

The first step to dealing with shame is to recognize it and identify the people you are around, or places you are in, when you get triggered.  Maybe it is your aunt who always raises her eyebrows when your child interrupts her, or the grocery store with the long lines where your child always acts out. Just identifying it accurately can take some of shame’s power away.  Simply recognizing it is sometimes enough to stop the wave of anger that often comes after a person feels shame.  Shame is very different than guilt.  The message of guilt is “I did something wrong”.  The message of shame is “I am wrong” (Dr. Karyn Purvis).  In identifying your triggers, you can also learn to avoid them when possible.

Your Relationship with Your Child is More Important Than Anyone’s Expectations of You or Your Child

Remember the relationships that are long lasting.  Do the right thing for the person with whom you will have a life-long relationship.  Maybe the teacher communicates that she expects you to have a consequence waiting for your child after school.  You experience shame when she tells you what your child did at school, but you know your child has already been punished.  Always pick your child.  You will always have a relationship with your child, and you may or may not remember his/her 1st grade teacher’s name in five years.

 Good Repair Creates Intimacy

Remember that no one does everything right.  There is no parent on earth who gets everything right.  Every parent loses his temper at times, and even shames his child at times.  There is no intimacy in a relationship if there is not restoration.  These relationship ruptures are opportunities to increase our intimacy by making it right with our child.  Whenever there is a rupture in the relationship, make sure that you restore things.  Children are so forgiving even if you can’t physically restore something.  Just saying, “I wish I would have done things differently. I made the wrong choice,” shows a child that you are willing to make it right.  Restoration that is genuine, honest, and vulnerable draws a child even closer to the parent than before the rupture happened.

Don’t Get Too Far Ahead of Yourself

On another note, it is best to avoid thinking about the future which can be very overwhelming for a parent who is feeling immobilized.  Just focus on one day at a time.  What does your child need today? That is a question that even a very overwhelmed parent can answer. On the other hand, a question like, “What does your child need to learn before high school?”  Is completely overwhelming for a parent whose child is struggling in kindergarten.

 


Life on a Raft; isolation in special needs families

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“Who is going to take Ava to her soccer games this week?” my husband asked, concerned. 

“I don’t know. I will think of someone to call,” I responded, although I cringed at the thought.

Did I have anyone to call?  When was the last time I had spoken to one of the moms who had kids in Ava’s class?  I wracked my brain and remembered one playdate over the summer she had had.  I called that parent, but she was unable to help.  She was sweet and gave me a list of other moms that were carpooling.  She didn’t understand; carpooling was part of the island life, and we had moved away from the island years ago.

School used to be such a place of isolation for us.  I dreaded going into the public school more than anything, and yet I will bet that I was called in more than any other parent there.  I can remember one time being called into a meeting with Jony’s second grade teacher.  She was a safe place for me and for him.  She had kind, warm eyes and a generous smile, and although she couldn’t reign in my son’s behaviors, she always landed in a place of compassion for him.

 I put on my cloak of defense that morning – the cloak that demanded the IEP be followed and his needs be considered, the cloak that protected me from my own tears and vulnerability.  She greeted me with a warm hug, and I felt the cloak slipping off my shoulders.  I don’t remember what the meeting was about – there were so many meetings!  About 10 minutes into the meeting, the P.E. teacher barged into the room.  He said, “I am sorry to interrupt your meeting, but I heard you were here, and I need to talk to you about Jony.”  He didn’t look sorry; he looked angry.  His speech was pressured and irritated.  I don’t remember what he said, but I remember how I felt….smaller and smaller, wishing the ground could swallow me up.  Before he was done, the school counselor came in to pile on the complaints, full of criticism, judgment, and annoyance.  I remember standing up, willing myself to advocate, but I couldn’t find any words, so instead I babbled, “I need to go – maybe you can just email me.”  I rushed out the door, hoping I could get to my car before bursting into tears, and the music teacher rushed out of her room as I hurried by.  “Do you have a minute?  I really need to talk to you about Jony,” she said.  “No, I don’t,” I replied as I hurried past her surprised gasp.  I made it to the car before bursting into tears. 

Experiences like this pushed us into isolation.  We only participated in the mandatory holiday parties.  I became an expert in avoiding eye contact and conversation at school activities.  Too much friendliness always seemed to lead to a conversation, and that always led to complaints about Jony.  I used to pursue social contact, but as the years got more difficult, I began to avoid it.  It was just so much simpler not to interact too much with people. 

We started out on an island with everyone else, but we were sometimes pushed, sometimes moved away willingly, until the only place to go was out to sea.  We built a raft; at first it was rickety, and the water threatened to overwhelm us, but eventually we added to it, making it sturdy and safe.  We created our own world away from the island where we created our own entertainment, safety, peace, and sometimes rest.  There are other families on rafts.  We see them and bump into each other once in a while.  Sometimes our rafts are tied together for a bit and we visit, but each raft is built for the specific needs of the family, and often these needs conflict.  On one raft a child can only calm down by using his iPad, but on our raft, iPads are prohibited.  Mostly we relate from a distance: phone calls, emails, texts, and thoughtful gifts.  

Then there are the island people.  We still have island friends.  They are kind, warm, and flexible, and they work at staying connected.  It is hard to stay connected to a raft family.  When we finally get to the island activity, we spend the majority of our time meeting needs and little time engaging in the social activity. 

Then there are the children on the raft who are only there because of the needs of other children in the family.  These children long to be part of the island life.  They live in constant dissonance, wanting both to be on the raft and to be on the island.  They go to all the island  get-togethers, but they usually can’t host any.  There just isn’t any room on the raft for extra people.  Even if there is room on the raft, they understand that islander children don’t understand raft life.  Islander children wonder at the high structure of the raft, paired with what seem to be low expectations.  There is great sadness for these children.  They understand all they miss, and as a result develop a greater sense of maturity. The parents on the raft understand that island children can survive on a raft, but raft children cannot survive on the island.  It is a price they know is unfairly paid by the child who would thrive on the island.

We still live on the raft, but we visit the island frequently now.  At some point along the way, we got used to the sweetness of the raft – the way it doesn’t matter what you have there or who you are – the way you focus on all the treasures you have, and they seem so many while you are on the raft – the closeness of the people on the raft and those sweet friends that join us here on occasion.  In changing schools, we have met a community of raft families, families that do all the things island families do but with different expectations and much different conversations.  All of us, regardless of jobs, social standing, or finances, have chosen to leave the island because the water is kinder to our children.   We started to feel less isolated and more connected.

There are some families that are able to move onto the raft for a season, coming back to the island restored. Other families stay on the raft forever. Every family’s goal is not to move back to the island, because some children will never thrive there.  For these families, the goal is to find the sweetness of the raft. The goal is to connect with the people on the raft, and to stay connected with people who matter to you.

 

 


Window of Tolerance

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We all have a window of tolerance.   When we are operating outside of that window, we behave badly.  This window is widening or shrinking, depending on what happens during the day.  When we sleep well, eat well, and get the physical movement that we need, our window is larger.  Every choice we make during the day either enlarges the window or shrinks it.  Every trauma that a person endures shrinks that window of tolerance. Trauma can be a change in caretakers, moving, a hospitalization, persistent bullying and many other things that make a person feel powerless. The children I work with typically have multiple traumas, and therefore they develop very small windows.  Requests that seem quite reasonable can fall outside of that window of tolerance and lead to a child feeling overwhelmed, which looks like defiance.  It doesn’t matter how smart or capable the child is, when his little window is full, any request can be too much.

Understanding what fits inside of our child’s window is key to success.  Your child may be super athletic, but school is the only thing that fits into his little window.  Soccer practice at the end of the day may fall outside of this window, no matter how much the child or you love soccer.  Often parents don’t see discouragement; they just see defiance. “Buddy, put on your soccer things. We need to go,” can lead to a meltdown.

For children with a small window of tolerance, homework is almost always outside of that window.  Research has shown that homework has no benefit in elementary school and very little benefit in middle school.  There is no reason for a child with a small window of tolerance to be doing homework.

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Things That Happen When a Child Operates Outside His Window of Tolerance

Children Shut down or Come Out Swinging

This is the child trying to keep himself safe.  Everything done outside of his window is designed to keep himself safe.  It is self-preservation at its finest.  The child knows that he just can’t do something in that moment, so he refuses to do it. He may shut down and start moving in slow motion.  It is as if his feet are in concrete, and even his words slow down and become less clear.  He may start to cry and whine.  Some children move immediately into a fighting stance.  They begin to argue and become aggressive with their words and sometimes their actions.  Children react when something is outside of their window of tolerance, and their discouragement takes root quickly.

Children Don’t Learn

Nothing done outside a child’s window of tolerance will take root.  The lesson you are determined to teach about responsibility, not quitting, determination, etc., will not be effective.  It is often when our children are outside of their window of tolerance that we become determined that they will do whatever it is that we have in mind for them to do.  You may get compliance, but you won’t get learning.  You will encounter the same issue day after day.

Children Lie

In an attempt to keep things within their window of tolerance, children lie to keep themselves from operating outside of that window.  If homework is outside of their window, then they say they don’t have any.  As they get older, they get more creative. They may plagiarize notes, stuff homework down vents, copy friend’s assignments, etc.   This is very confusing, especially for a parent that knows his/her child is capable of doing the assignment.  They are capable, but only if they still have some room in their window.  Maybe that means they are only capable before 10:00 am.  Maybe that means they are only capable after an hour of play outside.  There is a big difference between a child who lies maliciously to get someone in trouble and a child who lies to avoid being in trouble.  Most of the time when children lie, it is to keep themselves operating within that window of tolerance.

Children Feel Emotionally Disconnected

A child who is operating outside of his window of tolerance usually can’t get back inside of that window without an adult understanding that the child needs help getting back inside of that window.  When an adult caretaker fails to “see”, really “see” his/her child, the child develops a sense of loneliness and despair.  The child understands that he is often out of control, but there isn’t anyone who makes sense of that for him.  There isn’t anyone that “sees” that he is really just trying to keep himself safe.  This emotional disconnect often creeps into every relationship, and the child just doesn’t feel like he “fits” or “belongs” anywhere.  I often hear things like – “I am not like anyone else. I don’t feel like I belong in this family. I have no friends. No one likes me. I am just different.”

Children Develop Unhealthy Coping Strategies

Instead of learning to engage in authentic communication with their caretakers, children’s only goal of communication is to avoid having to do something outside of their window of tolerance.  Instead of parents and children having conversations about authentic fears, interests, and hobbies, their conversations start consisting mostly of confrontation and avoidance.  The child becomes an expert at avoiding anything outside of his window of tolerance, no matter how unhealthy his coping might be.  I can’t stress the importance of authentic communication enough.  I believe that a family can get through anything if it is having authentic conversations.  My child coming to me and saying, “I am so discouraged because I can’t do what other kids can do.  It makes me want to lie to you about homework because I know I can’t do it,” feels very different than a child stuffing his homework down the vent and insisting, despite the teacher’s e-mail, that he has no homework.  This inauthenticity creates rifts that become harder and harder to build bridges across.

Children Despair

This one grieves my heart the most.  One’s experience in childhood determines what one believes is possible for his life.  Children are so very vulnerable.  Everything that happens to children is determined by adults charged with their care.  Every adult can shrink or expand that window based on his/her treatment of that child.  There is a difference between surviving and resilience.  Children are survivors, but they are not as resilient as most people think.  They are little people with every emotion intact, but without the power to change their lives in any way.

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How Do You Expand the Window of Tolerance?

Show the Child Every Edge and Corner of the Window

Children need to be involved in problem solving for this.  Without judgment, notice with the child what activities seem to be outside of that window of tolerance.  If at all possible, try to remove those activities.  This is hard for parents because these activities are often an important part of the parents’ or family’s identity.  Maybe you always thought you would expose your child to music at an early age, or you were a basketball star in college, and your son clearly takes after you in athleticism.  These are not easy things to give up, ever.  If they were easy to give up, you already would have done it.  Show your child the edges of the window when you notice he is pushed over the edge.  You might determine with your child that basketball fits into the window on Saturday and Sunday, but not during the week because school takes up all the window space.  In doing this, you are empowering your child and expanding the window.  Children who feel empowered and understand the edges of their windows feel less stress. Reducing stress increases the size of the window.

 

Know When to Raise or Lower the Bar

As you practice noticing when your child is operating outside of his window of tolerance, you will start understanding when to raise or lower the bar of expectations.  If a child is operating inside of his window of tolerance, he may be easily able to complete a book report from start to finish.  If a child is outside of his window of tolerance, he may not even be able to handle hearing about the book report.  You need to be able to set the bar for your child and insist on setting it for other adults that are in charge of your child as well.  Again, this is not easy.  People expect us to make our children behave, not for us to request that adults adjust their demands on our child.  It is not the way things are done.  It is advocacy.  It is what your child needs from you.  You may write the teacher an e-mail and say, “I know the book report is due tomorrow, but my child just cannot do a project like this during the week.  We will do this on Saturday.”  Here is the kicker.  It may mean that you write the teacher and say, “My child can’t do any homework.  He has nothing left to give at the end of the day and needs his weekends to recover.”  You may need a pediatrician’s note for this one.

Remember, the bar is constantly moving.  If you fix the bar too low, your child won’t learn.  If you fix the bar too high, your child will despair.*  You have to move it up or down depending on your child’s needs in the moment. When the stress in the environment is reduced, the window gets larger.

Alternative Interventions

I will just barely touch on this topic, but it is something that needs to be considered for every highly sensitive child.  A good Functional MD can determine if your child has food sensitivities, parasites, or vitamin deficiencies.  An OT or Developmental Movement Specialist can determine what types of movements may be necessary.  Some children require multiple interventions in order to enlarge their windows.

I am not the parent I used to be.  I am so thankful for people who showed me where and how to set the bar appropriately for my child.  It has not been an easy journey, and I moved down this road kicking and screaming at times.  Often every family member sacrifices something in order for that child to stay within his window of tolerance.  This journey is hard, but it is worth it.  Your child is worth it.

 

*Karyn Purvis spoke often about knowing where to set the bar for the child.  This concept came from her teaching and TBRI principles. 


Parenting with Process in Mind

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“Sometimes I think about writing a book about our own healing journey,” I told a friend of mine.   She responded, “I think you should wait a while, and then you can write about how your kids turn out.”   I didn’t have to think long before responding because it is something I had already considered.  I said, “That sort of thinking implies that the process was worthless if the outcome isn’t perfect.”  The process is what matters.  Did you love your child well today?  Did you encourage and connect with your child?

Outcome parenting is parenting with certain goals in mind.  Outcome parenting creates an environment where children feel as though they have to earn their worth, an environment where opportunities for joy are missed because the outcome the parent has in mind remains unachieved.  Outcome parenting has few pivotal moments that determine whether or not the child/ parent has been successful.  Examples of these pivotal moments would be making the travel soccer team, graduating from college, making the varsity cheerleader squad, staying in honors classes, marrying well, looking a certain way, having the right friends, etc.

Imagine a child who is very musically interested and starts taking piano lessons.  He starts out self-motivated and loving the process, but soon Mom develops some goals for his new hobby. There is a scholarship available to a limited number of students that do well at a school competition.  She starts paying attention when he practices and harping on him when he doesn’t.  She complains about all the money she is spending and how little progress he is making.  Practicing that was once looked forward to is now the dreaded time of the day.  The school competition comes up, the child’s nerves get the best of him, and he misses several notes.  Because the focus of this was the outcome, the child has failed.  The mother feels like a failure too.  All that work, fighting, and suffering was for nothing. 

Imagine instead a parent that focuses on the process.  Her child wants to learn how to play the piano.  She encourages him to do that and pays for him to have piano lessons.  He hates the music that the piano teacher has given him to practice, so his mom goes to the music store with him to find music books on his level with songs he wants to play.  She enjoys listening to his progress and comments frequently on his hard work.  She says that as long as he invests his time in music, she will support him by paying for his lessons.  The same school competition is coming up.  The child decides to participate.  He also misses several notes and does not qualify for the scholarship.  He feels embarrassed that he messed up in front of everyone, but he does not feel like a failure.  The joy for him was in the process.

Parenting that focuses on process is much more joyful and connected.  It is not what the child achieves, but how happy and connected the child is during the process. It is being able to forget about everything the child needs to know by Friday for his test and just focusing on supporting him exactly where he is in his learning.  It is about staying more connected and invested in the day to day interactions with your child than in the outcome. 

 I fell into the trap of outcome parenting for years.  I decided it was my job to get my child to learn everything he needed to learn in order to make sure he could be successful, get into college, and provide for himself.  Instead what I did was create so much stress in our home that he could NOT learn.  I spent hours working on colors, numbers, and letters to no avail. On bad days, I measured my own success as a parent and his success as a person by the dismal outcome of our efforts.  When I gave this all up and started focusing on the process, he started to learn by leaps and bounds.  He went from resisting all types of school work to loving certain subjects, being a voracious reader, and being on grade level in every subject.  There are still subjects that he struggles with, but he loves to learn again.  He feels good about his efforts and knows that if he wants to achieve something, he can.  He just has a different idea of what he wants to achieve than most do.

The other day, my son came in from school with a math test that had every single problem marked with a big red X and stamped with a big red 0.  Because we have learned not to focus on this type of thing, he was only a little discouraged about it.  I noticed a small red note in the bottom right of the corner that said, “You actually got every problem correct on your scrap sheet of paper.  You just transferred them into the wrong blank spot.”  I said, “Oh my goodness, you worked so hard and got every single one right.  I know that took a lot of effort, and you did practice problems all week.  Your work paid off!  You know exactly how to do these.”  He beamed.  I still have a rare day here and there when I catch myself parenting as though the outcome is the only thing that matters.  These are not good parenting days.  They are filled with fear and urgency, both of which make very bad parenting buddies. 

Since Mother’s Day is around the corner, here is a thought.  You are not a failure because your child isn’t hitting society’s goals for him.  Instead, you are a champion because it takes a lot more courage to focus on everything your child is learning and how far your child has come.  It takes super-hero strength some days to stay focused on the small victories your child has had.  There is absolutely no more value in a child that achieves every wanted outcome than one who does not achieve any.  When we focus on outcome, we make children feel like their value is contingent on their achievements.  I don’t believe any parent wants to communicate this to his/her child.  Any child can be a success if we focus on the process.


Choosing to Pay Attention

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“You know, Mommy,” my son said to me, “Abuelita* and I have so much in common. I think that is why I love to spend time with her so much.” He said this with so much sincerity that I found myself puckering my lips to avoid smiling at his statement. I was trying to think what on earth he was referring to. My son is a tall eleven-year old, active, extroverted child who gives a verbal, running commentary about everything going on in his mind and around him. He talks constantly. He towers over his abuelita in size. Abuelita is tiny, walks with a cane, is very introverted, and only talks when she has something important to say.

Over the holidays we visited Abuelita, and it was not uncommon to find Jony with his abuelita. We planned all sorts of entertaining outings, and even during those, we would find him sitting in the shade with her. One day we went to an archeological site. As we were driving in, we had already picked out the shady spot where Abuelita would sit while the kids explored. Abuelita avoids the sun like the plague. She brought a very large sunhat and an umbrella to shield herself from the sun, both of which she used even though she was sitting in the shade. If she is walking to the market and sees an awning across a busy street that will provide her six feet of covering from the sun, she will risk her life to cross that street with her cane for ten seconds of shade.

I had all these ideas about what this trip would look like. I traveled all over the world with my family growing up. We didn’t have much money, and though these trips always had a work-oriented destination, my parents took advantage of each one. My dad was quite the adventurer, and if we were at all close to some significant landmark, he would figure out a way for us to see it. “Close” is such a relative term for very significant landmarks like Paris, France, which could be ten hours away, and for other less significant landmarks like Mount Rushmore, which could be just a few hours away. My mom would read aloud to us about the history and landmarks of our destination. This all took effort, as it was before the time that the internet was at our finger tips. It was important to them – learning about the history, appreciating the culture, and taking advantage of every opportunity we had. This is the framework I developed for travel.

Fast forward through the years, and travel looks very different for me now as an adult with children of my own. My husband and I had hopes of traveling with our children. For years, travel was so difficult that unless we were going to a family wedding or funeral, we avoided it all together. We said “no” so often, refusing invitations, that it is amazing we had any friends left. We learned that routine was our best friend, and there is never enough routine in travel. Every day brings something new and exciting; for easily overwhelmed children, this means every day feels riddled with anxiety and is unsafe. Meltdowns were epic when we traveled.

We have come such a long way. Trips are no longer dreaded in our home. This doesn’t mean they are easy and stress-free, but the good parts outweigh the hard parts. We come home tired, but happy that we went. Before, I can remember saying to my husband, “Remind me that this was not worth it whenever I get another travel idea in my head.”

Over the holidays we went to see my husband’s family in Mexico. His childhood home is very close to several archeological sites, as well as other historical sites. I had this idea – I blame my Dad for this one – about all the opportunities the kids would miss if we didn’t make it to everything that was “close” to Abuelita’s house. I had one child who relished each location, asked lots of questions, and begged to stay longer. Jony was not that child. He complained about the sun while we stood at the base of one of the largest pyramids in the world. He complained each time we got in a car to go anywhere. The car always felt too crowded and too hot, and the speed bumps agitated him. He just wanted to stay at the house with Abuelita . He really didn’t care about the pyramids, natural hot springs, or the history of the city. He gagged impolitely every time someone added spicy grasshoppers to his/her food, no matter how many times I gently reminded him that was impolite. Every time he gagged, I served myself more grasshoppers, hoping to ease my own discomfort.

So much of what I wanted him to care about, he just didn’t. However, the things I value most in life he cares about deeply, and those are relationships. I had to choose to pay attention to all the ways he showed “care”, and there is not a single person in the family that does that better than he does. Every time I went looking for Jony, I found him with his abuelita. He was the first to help her in and out of the car. He worried if she hadn’t gotten out of bed and would climb onto the bed next to her asking, “Te sientes bien, Abuelita?*” When he found her flipping through a math workbook one morning, he rushed to bring her a stack of more interesting books. He was sure that she wasn’t actually interested in the math workbook. Jony went to the market with her in the mornings. He cheerfully carried her purse as she held onto his arm on the uneven sidewalk. The only moments of tension between the two of them happened at 4:00 p.m. every day when her favorite soap opera started at the same time as his favorite cartoon started. Even then, after a little pouting and complaining, he would settle in beside her comfortably, sitting as close as you can to someone without ending up in his/her lap. What struck me is how present he was with her. I cannot imagine any other boy his age being that comfortable in the same situation. Most children become very somber when they are taken to visit a sick family member at the hospital or their grandparent in an assisted living center. Grandma asks for a hug, and children hunker down next to their moms, feeling the weight of the sorrow that fills the air in those places.

The simple, sweet way that Jony loves is his gift. He might not care about seeing an ancient city, but he is the first to comfort or offer companionship to someone who is lonely. That is the stuff of life. A person can be successful if he can have successful relationships. This is a child who will succeed. His ability to just “be with” exceeds my expectations of a child his age. It is a gift. My choice is this – what do I pay attention to? I can choose to pay attention to the fact that other kids his age would appreciate the experiences he didn’t. Or I can choose to pay attention to the fact that my son cares about his family so much that being with his family exceeds any experience that I could provide for him. I can choose to pay attention to the fact that my son is a nurturing caretaker, and one day I know he will show his dad and I the same care as we age. I can’t explain to you why Jony thinks he has so much in common with his abuelita because he couldn’t find the words to express that to me. I suspect it has to do with him feeling connected, needed, and a sense of belonging.

*Abuelita literally means “little grandma”. It is a term of endearment for a grandparent in Spanish.

*Te sientes bien ?- means “Do you feel O.K.?”