Focusing on the Flowers

One of my children feels everyday things at levels of emotional intensity that I hardly ever reach. She grasps and struggles to remember her coping strategies.  Almost every day, we have at least one reaction that ends with her sobbing and me bear-hugging her to keep her and others safe. (That I would even write “at least one” is an improvement from last year, when I would write “at least five.”)

My heart hurts for her.

I’ve learned to set up her environment to help her succeed. I’ve read lots of books and tried lots of strategies that have seemed to help.  I’ve also tried and discarded suggestions.  I’ve visited a few professionals.  Her brain has continued to develop and I see progress as she matures.  But the world makes her feel big feelings and I can’t make them stop.

I’ve learned a lot along this journey.  One of the lessons that has been the hardest to learn and accept is to stop trying to find a magic strategy that fixes everything.  I still wrestle with this temptation–if we can just figure out WHAT CAUSES THIS, then I DO XYZ AND IT ALL GOES AWAY.

I like linear thinking and cause-and-effect; I am a CBT-practicing therapist’s dream. But my child can’t communicate about all of the things that influence her responses, and I suspect there are things that mediate her responses that she isn’t aware of.  We are diligently working to try to understand them, but it doesn’t mean that we will.

Which means we need to focus on practicing coping skills.  Both of us.

Another lesson I have learned is that in order for me to enjoy parenting and communicate love to my child, I need to move beyond a behavioral focus. In the beginning, I tried behavior modification techniques. Over and over again.  But I had to pay attention to the fact that when I ignored her as she wailed on the floor, or when I put her in time-out, or even when I used some old-school parenting techniques as a last-ditch effort, the behavior was not becoming extinct and my child’s feelings grew more intense.  She didn’t feel bad about her behavior; she felt alone with her feelings. 

I have come to believe that my sweet girl didn’t ask to feel such big feelings and isn’t trying to feel them; they’re unpleasant for her, too.  So the best way to be her mama isn’t to punish or ignore those feelings out of her; it’s to get down with her and be there as she feels them, and to help coach her in the best way to cope with them.

It doesn’t mean that we never do time-outs, but it means that instead of shoving her in her room wordlessly or with a “WE DO NOT HIT!”, I try to set her up in her room with her bean bag chair, her “bump bump,” her heavy backpack, some books, or her sensory teether and help her make a plan for how she is going to calm down.

It means that I take her away from situations that are too overwhelming for her, but don’t get frustrated at her for being overwhelmed.  If she handled her feelings in a non-acceptable way, I usually don’t punish her beyond the logical consequence of being removed from the situation; if she shows remorse, we move on and practice how we could handle the situation better next time.

It means that I resist the urge to view her behaviors as a deficit that need to be stamped out of her and try my hardest to remember that I am dealing with a human being with a heart that I am partially responsible for shaping.

Before every nap and every bedtime, I hold her hand and remind her: you are kind. You are good.  You are smart. You are loved.  She always begs me to say it again.  I think this is telling of how much she wants to be these things and maybe even how far-off she feels from these things sometimes.

IMG_1012Right now my kitchen table is full of flowers.  She picked a bouquet for me a few days ago and asked, “did this make you happy, mama?” I told her yes, they did.  Two days later, before the first bouquet had even died, she picked me more.  Then she made me paper flowers with her babysitter.  Each time: “did this make you happy, mama?”

My prayer in parenting right now is that I can focus on the fact that my table is full of flowers from a girl who wants to please me.  In the midst of trying to deal with all of HER big emotions, she values MY emotions.  What a gift!

When Jesus said “let the little children come to me,” he didn’t set a behavior standard first.  It wasn’t “let the children come only when they are good at coping with disappointment, anger, and sadness, and can communicate clearly using I-statements.” He wanted them to come as they were so He could share unconditional love with them.

That is my job as well. And as I stumble through it, imperfectly but with lots of effort, He shares that same unconditional love with me.

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8 thoughts on “Focusing on the Flowers

  1. We are going through the same struggles right now. The word that always quickly comes to mind when thinking of my girl is INTENSE. She feels so intensely. This isn’t always a bad thing. She loves harder and more deeply and passionately than anyone I’ve ever known in life. She is the kindest, sweetest, most get wrongs and perfectly loving sister I could have ever dreamed she would be. But sometimes that translates into physical affection that just overtakes her entire body, to the point of shaking, just to give her brother a kiss. She is like this with friends, family, toys, etc. Her thoughts, opinions, and feelings are strong. About everything. It is a constant challenge for me to balance letting her have control, and trying to keep the neurosis and intensity in check. I would love to hear some of what’s working for you all. Some days we’re nailing it, and other days we’re all just treading water.

      • It’s hard for me to say without actually seeing her in action. Most advice that I have read/sought out has fallen into one of three camps: this is normal toddler behavior, you have a strong-willed child (who is thrilled by the battle of the wills and strives for dominance), or you have a child who struggles to regulate their emotions.

        I waited in camp one for a while to see if she grew out of it. She did mature, and I found “Happiest Toddler On the Block” to be helpful at understanding what baseline might look like, but 8 months into it, I still felt that she was on a different plane than her peers in the way that she responded to situations and emotions (and we know a lot of peers!)

        I was getting some unsolicited “strong willed child” advice, but as I watched her, she didn’t seem thrilled by the battle of the wills. Often, she seemed to me like she was stuck in a battle between her emotions and herself–other people were just a casualty but weren’t the point–and it seemed like she was almost in an ego-dystonic state from her emotions. I sought some advice at this stage from our pediatrician and someone from childhood services in our county, who both said that they believed she was “emotionally intense.” At this point, I was already working on a lot of emotion management strategies with her, but we kept working on calming techniques (a calm down chair, practicing taking deep breaths with fun exercises, etc.), regulating her schedule more so that we were home at the times of day when she tended to be most overwhelmed, observing what social situations were hardest for her and avoiding them, giving her physical outlets, and putting her in a safe activity that was a nice challenge and opportunity for her to practice handling her emotions (semi-private swim lessons). We also worked a lot on redoing situations the right way if she had handled it correctly & labeling emotions. I tried to be very explicit in my directions (“do it this way” vs. “don’t do that”) and praise her when she did things the right way. I found the books “The Spirited Child” and “The Whole Brained Child” most helpful.

        Recently, I have also seen an OT and we are working through some sensory issues with her using a sensory activity plan. I have a feelings chart in my kitchen. We do visualization exercises & distraction things when she is wigging out (blowing up a balloon, tying it and giving it to a friend, picking the next color balloon, releasing them into the sky, etc.) I try to connect and redirect instead of punish (thanks, Whole Brained Child) and try my best understand what issues she is really reacting to. Since our approach is so mishmash, I can’t tell you what specifically works, but feel free to ask any follow ups! And HEY…at least she LIKES her new brother. Have I ever told you about the Great Trader Joe’s Debacle of 2014?

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