Running on Highways

 

This past weekend I joined a group of moms from Southern California to run a 205-mile relay from San Francisco to Napa, California. The promise of wine-tasting and 48 hours of family-free time was enough to get me to agree to something so crazy.  Our team name was R.I.O.T. Moms, with the acronym for “Running Is Our Therapy” a fitting description for how exercise and outdoor time can rejuvenate even the weariest of parents.

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The past couple of months have reaffirmed my own parenting journey. My husband and I sold our house in the Pacific Northwest, closed up shop on our jobs, and headed south with kids and dog in tow to relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area.  The promise of good weather and time to focus on family was all we needed to make the jump to a new adventure. Throughout this transition, which included my oldest starting kindergarten, my kids have been relying on each other and my husband and I in new ways.  Amidst the uncertainty they often look to mom and dad for stability, and that trust can be both reassuring and draining.  I’ve been practicing some meditation techniques, channeling my inner calm, so when the chaos threatens to take over – one child is crying, another is telling a loud story, the dog is barking, the dinner on the stove boiling over – I can take a deep breath and keep my core calm and regulated.

 

Children feed off our nerves. A child who easily becomes dysregulated is looking for outside sources of strength to bump up against.  Sometimes, this is figurative – needing a calm presence to reflect back to them the way to cope with a situation.  And sometimes they actually ARE bumping into things – crashing into you, into their sibling, hitting walls, or tripping over their own feet – to seek some sort of barrier or boundary to the chaos coursing through them.  How we react – kneeling down, modeling deep breaths and quiet words, giving hugs and pressure squeezes when needed, reflecting their emotions with words and simple phrases – can mean continued shouting and tears, or a de-escalation of the situation.

 

Running a relay takes you on beautiful trails through the woods, winding streets coursing through quaint little towns, and hot, gravely highways with semi-trucks roaring past. I have a hard time on those highways, thinking I have little shoulder to run on, my footing irregular and my temperature rising.  The sound from the trucks can be overwhelming, moving me to frustrated tears if I let it. A dysregulated child feels the same.  Senses on overload, fear of the unknown driving action, uncertainty of how to proceed. For many of our children, being unable to get the train pieces to fit together, or an incessantly itchy tag bothering their neck, is all that is needed to get on that chaotic highway.

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I worked on my meditation techniques during those miles. The face of calm on the inside.  Ironic, since I probably looked a hot mess on the outside.  Breathing, keeping my blood pressure at a steady state.  Visualizing my end goal and the steps to get there.  Using my thoughts and words to channel chaotic emotions.  These all mirror many of the strategies we use with children to help them regulate their bodies. Self-soothing strategies are lifelong lessons we can teach, to deal with frustration, chaos, and situations outside of our control.  Check out more links below to strategies you can use at home…

Avoiding Meltdowns

Self-Soothing Strategies

Behavior Strategies

Anxiety Management

And a big “thank you” to my fellow RIOT Moms, who persevered with me!  205 miles ain’t got nothing on us!

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Tips for the Weary Mom

We all experience fatigue in this job they call “parenting”.

One moment I can feel on my game, the house is tidy (ish) and the kids are happy, playing, and learning as they go.  The next moment I round the corner into the kitchen and find the dog licking spilled juice off the floor, while one child pleadingly calls to me from the bathroom to help her wipe her bottom.  At times it can feel overwhelming.  I was entrusted with these little humans? To raise, to teach, to keep safe in this world.  Me?  How can I manage?

Interestingly, I sometimes feel the same way at my job.  I’ve been entrusted with helping this child?  The one who struggles to learn?  The one who has such a thin line of perseverance that the slightest misstep can push them into dysregulation and a full meltdown?  The one who has been written off by his teachers, or labeled and filed away by a relative? And yet we do it, day after day, week after week.  We parent, we teach.  Because it does make a difference.  It does matter.

There are a few strategies I’ve learned to help me with those days when I am feeling especially weary.  The days when I wonder if I have it in me.  By focusing on a few things, I can move an otherwise overwhelming interaction into a positive one.

 

  • Let your face light up when your child walks into the room.  The first thing they see when they round that corner should be you, glad to see them, happy to have them here.  It can be a mood changer.

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  • Still your hands, kneel down to eye level, and give your child your calm focus and attention.  If there is one thing I recommend to parents, it’s to kneel down in front of their child when they talk to them.  It does wonders.

  • Listen.  Really listen. Hear your child from where they are.

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  • Give a mental break.  Teach your children how to have quiet time.  Reinforce the idea of alone time with your child, where they can explore their own thoughts.  It might be five minutes at first, but build that resilience.  After lunch is usually a good time, and can give a much-needed pause to the busy day.

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  • When you come back together, center yourself on them.  Snuggle time for the fussy toddler.  Words and eye contact for the preschooler.  Use yourself as their calm center for the afternoon.

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  • Think of what their bodies need.  If the mood is sour, head outside.  No matter the weather, bundle up for a walk and go.  The fresh air and activity will be a game changer.

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  • If you’re staying in for the afternoon, feed their bodies.  Ride bikes in the garage, build forts by the couch, do sensory and physical play.  Put on some music and dance.

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Meet your child where they’re at, setting aside your adult pace to take in the world at their level.  By doing this, you are communicating at their developmental level, building language, problem-solving, and fostering exploration.  Kneel down and look into their eyes: the ones that reflect your image and that reveal their heart.  Kneel down.

Kids Do Well If They Can

daydreaming at schoolBehind every challenging behavior is an unsolved problem and a lagging skill.

Every child demonstrates frustrating behaviors at times.  As they grow and develop, children challenge the world around them, sorting through their own feelings to find an individual voice.  Some children demonstrate mental overload by whining, crying, or withdrawing into themselves.  Others reveal behavior that is more outwardly-focused, such as yelling, shouting, and spitting.

Still for others, a mental switch is flipped, and being unable to process a situation takes them into a “fight or flight” response where they bolt from the situation, lash out physically, hit, punch, or kick.  The problem is, once the switch is flipped, they often don’t have the cognitive capacity to process the situation appropriately.  What’s a parent to do?

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Language processing problems, and/or anxiety often lie behind an apparent behavior outburst.  Consider the following list of skills (adapted from Ross Greene’s “Lost at School”) frequently found lagging in challenging kids:

-Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mind-set or task to another

-Difficulty persisting on challenging or tedious tasks

-Poor sense of time

-Difficulty reflecting on multiple thoughts or ideas simultaneously

-Difficulty maintaining focus

-Difficulty considering the likely outcomes or consequences of actions (impulsive)

-Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem

-Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in words

-Difficulty understanding what is being said

-Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration so as to think rationally

-Difficulty attending to and/or accurately interpreting social cues/poor perception of social nuances

 

These skills require quick and flexible thinkingMost children with behavioral challenges already know that we want them to behave.  They also would like to behave the right way.  What’s lacking are important thinking skills that allow them to regulate their emotions, consider the outcomes of their actions, understand their feelings and those of others, and respond to changes in a plan.  Such flexible thinking skills are challenged when the demands in a situation are more than the child is able to handle adaptively.

They aren’t doing it on purpose.

The kids who are most often described as being manipulative are those least capable of pulling it off.

 

While a clear diagnosis (language processing disorder, attention-deficit disorder, anxiety disorder, etc.) is helpful in pointing us in the right direction, a child is more individual than their own diagnosis.  There are also many children who fall through the cracks in receiving a true diagnosis, meaning they don’t fully qualify for all the conditions of that disorder.  But you don’t need a diagnosis to have a problem.  You just need a problem to have a problem.

The situations which are most challenging for our children vary depending on the strength and development of their organizational and flexible thinking skills.  The challenge for parents and professionals is to break down situations where these behavior outbursts are occurring and develop strategies, in collaboration with the child, for better behaviorIt is also important to truly address lagging skills in processing and flexible thinking in order to fill the holes a in a child’s development.  Children who experience the most success with behavior modifications are those who are considered an integral part of the team, who are asked for their insight, who problem-solve with their parents and teachers, and who are asked for their opinions every step of the way.

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For more information on collaborative problem-solving, check out Dr. Ross Greene “The Explosive Child”

 

Breathe for the Weekend

I thought this was a great post from “The Power of Moms” about setting your expectations up to help you live through raising a family.  In my season of young motherhood, I am learning to let some things go.  I expect a lot of myself, but I know that as I juggle work, motherhood, family obligations, volunteer events, and housework, some things just aren’t that important.  Breathing through my experiences, enjoying the moments of peace, and trying to live an authentic life by being fully present and honest when I interact with children or talk with adults, are my defining mantras at the moment.  Read below for more:

 

“I have five young kids who have five sets of needs that often seem mutually exclusive. I co-direct this website. My husband is working hard on tons of his own projects. We’re both involved in parenting and church and community obligations and trying to make ends meet financially.

Given all this, should I expect my life to be generally calm and serene? Should I expect my house to be neat and tidy? Should I expect to be on time to everything? Or should I just go ahead and accept that my life is generally going to involve a fair amount of hurrying, juggling, and messes mixed with laughing, learning and working hard?

Certainly, I can and should work towards peace and happiness in my life and in my home. But I’ve found that when I accept that life is often hard and keep my unrealistic expectations in check, that peace and happiness I want actually happens more often.

As moms, if we go into each day thinking, “This is going to be a wonderful day – I’m going to get all this stuff done and have magical moments with my children all day long,” we’re bound to be disappointed somewhere along the way. While it’s great to be positive, it’s also great to be realistic!

I used to psych myself up about taking my three preschoolers to the grocery store – “This is going to be fun! I’ll let each child pick a fruit or vegetable. We’ll talk about all the colors and letters we see. It’ll be great!” Inevitably, I’d end up SO disappointed. My plans for fun and learning in the grocery store would fade away while my baby cried inconsolably (I did just feed her before we left home!), my toddler threw tantrums (I tried to get him interested in the colors!) and my 4-year-old got on the side of the cart and just about tipped it over.

When this would happen, not only did I feel frustrated about the way my children were behaving, but to add insult to injury, I felt so sad that my great expectations had been dashed. I felt like a failure as a mom because I hadn’t been able to bring my visions and plans to fruition.

After a while, I wised up. learned to keep my expectations LOW when taking my kids to the grocery store (and to avoid taking them whenever possible!). I learned to head into the store with this attitude: “Even though I’ve gone over the grocery store rules with my kids, there will probably be hard times in this store. There may well be a tantrum. There will probably be some whining. I may not get to everything on my list but that’s OK. If things get bad, we’ll just leave. This probably won’t be super fun but it’ll be OK.”

When I kept my expectations low, I found that I was often pleasantly surprised with the outcome and was better able to handle the hard stuff when it happened. “Yep, here it comes – I thought this might happen but I’ve done this before and I’ll do it again and it’ll be fine.”

I used to really care about having my home look lovely all the time. My old house was beautiful. It was clutter-free.  It was clean.  Everything was designed and decorated with great care. Each paint color, each piece of furnishing was chosen with great deliberation (and stress) by me. But what was I thinking trying to raise five little kids in an immaculate house?  It was really all about control.  I felt like maybe I couldn’t control the diaper explosions or the bickering of my kids and I couldn’t control the flailing economy or my husband’s worrisome work prospects, but I could control that house.  I could make it be clean and beautiful.  And I’m sure that little element of control did help me sometimes.  But overall, I learned that keeping a house quite constantly beautiful when kids live in it is an exercise in futility and I needed to seriously re-vamp my expectations.

When we moved into a different house a couple years ago, it was the perfect chance to change my expectations. My new housecleaning philosophy is one I got from my Power of Moms partner April: “clean enough to be healthy, messy enough to be happy.” There’s some clutter here and there. We could probably vacuum and dust a little more. Window washing doesn’t get to the top of the “to-do” list often. There are furnishings that could be replaced. But you know what? This house is a home. We live here and living is often just plain messy.

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I’m not saying we should just throw up our hands and let everything go. We need to be deliberate about what we hold onto and what we let slide and realize that what we decide to let slide will likely be different from what some other moms choose to let slide. We need to “plan for the best but prepare for the worst.” Every Sunday, my husband and I sit down and look at what’s coming up that week and plan for how we’ll handle tight times in the schedule and discuss issues in our family that need thought and action. Living life with goals and plans is important. But making those goals and plans realistic is vital.

As I sit here working on my long to-do list in my somewhat dusty house with remains of the craft project my son had to do for homework last night scattered across the table next to me, I can feel a lot of peace when I think “Yep, this is pretty much what I expected for today and it’s totally fine.” As I think about tonight when I’ve got a meeting at the same time that one child needs to babysit for another family and another child needs to be at scouts, I remember that we planned this out and it’ll be tight and we’ll have to be late for one thing but everything will be OK.

I don’t expect life to be perfect. I expect it to be hard and messy and exciting and wonderful in its own imperfect way.

QUESTION: What expectations have you adjusted in your life?

CHALLENGE: Pick one expectation you should adjust and make that change.

How About Fall Meltdowns?

Wow, it’s been awhile since I posted! The steady days of summer are now gone ~ all too fast, in my opinion. Many of the kids I work with took amazing vacations with their families. Roadtrips across the states, trips to the beach or Hawaii, and even some European vacations. One of my families cashed in Dad’s/Mom’s sabbatical time and took their two teenage sons around the world. Talk about a great learning experience!
The slowdown was great for me, as well, and I spent the extra time with my girls and extended family. Ah…

And then September hit. Oh yes, my last post reflected on the summer meltdown that often occurs for our kids as we transition off a set school schedule and into more unstructured summertime. But there’s a reversal to this shift when school comes around again, and the shift can be exhausting for both kids and parents alike. I have heard from so many friends and families about the meltdowns happening after the school day. Our kids can hold it together while at school, but it’s very taxing for them! And then we then get home… boom!

A few tips from an SLP perspective:
1. Give your child lots of “down time” on the weekends in September and October. While soccer and pumpkin hunting can often fill the weekend time, it’s important that your child has sufficient time to decompress.

2. With that free time, help them schedule it. For example, make a schedule with BREAKFAST-OUTSIDE PLAY-LUNCH-READING-QUIET TIME-CHORES-DINNER so they know what to expect. They will be able to relax into the “known”, rather than the “unknown”.

3. Set aside time with each child individually. If you need to tag team with your spouse or a grandparent, do it. Arrange for each child to have some quiet alone time, reading, playing a game, or going for a walk with Mom or Dad.

4. Email/chat with your child’s teacher. (I know that you are busy, teacher friends!) But check-in, just briefly, with your child’s teacher to get a read on how things are going at school. Establish open-lines of communication from the get-go. If your child has a Resource Room teacher or case manager, leave them a message, as well.

5. Know that you’ll all get in a groove, it just takes a few weeks. Recognize that back-to-school stress often happens for Mom and Dad (speaking from personal experience here!) and it magnifies what your child is going through.

What’s an Aspergirl?

When they hear the term “Asperger’s Syndrome”, many people picture a male with eccentricities, sensory sensitivities, poor social skills, and areas of giftedness or hyperfocus.  “Aspergirls” – the term made popular by Rudy Simone, an adult female with Aspergers – highlights the subculture of females with Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as the unique characteristics displayed by female “Aspies”.  One of my favorite, original “Aspergirls” is Dr. Temple Grandin, who has done wonders for the subculture of Aspergirls by sharing her frank and honest personal experiences with the world.

Young females with Asperger’s Syndrome are often overlooked in the early years and do not receive a diagnosis until their teens or beyond.  They are often shy, introverted, and bookish, characteristics which are more socially acceptable in females than in their male counterparts.  Aspergirls usually have areas of strong interest, like males, but again these often manifest themselves in more socially acceptable ways, such as having an interest in fairytales, horses, or art.

The lack of a diagnosis, however, means these girls are often dealing on their own with sensory overload, social confusion, and feelings of insecurity and frustration.  As Rudy writes in her book “Aspergirls”: “If there is no diagnosis then there is a vacuum – a hole in which to pour speculation and fill with labels.”  With diagnosis comes support -whether from therapist and professionals, within an IEP program at school, or from support groups with like-minded girls and families.

I highly recommend reading “Aspergirls” by Rudy Simone if you would like more information about your child or children you work with.  The book was frank and blunt, and Rudy gives practical advice to young girls, women, and their parents.  If your daughter exhibits characteristics of an “Aspergirl”, there are many things you can do at home.

1. Praise and encourage.  Aspergirls are often very emotionally vulnerable, and they need heaps of positive reinforcement.

2. Seek out information online.  Resources like Rudy Simone’s website: www.help4aspergers.com and www.aspie.com offer a lot of helpful information.

3. Find a support group in the area.  Social skills groups run by speech-language pathologists work on pragmatic language skills and peer relationships.  Two groups I know about in the Portland area include: www.artzcenter.org and www.campyakketyyak.org

4. Support your child’s areas of strength.  Those are the areas where they will shine.  As Rudy wrote: “Life is about making a contribution, not about being popular and fitting in.”

5. Create a soothing, quiet environment in your child’s room at home.  Soft music, comfortable pillows, and soft lighting help ease the sensory overload.

6. Help your child maintain a healthy diet and get exercise.  These can help with intestinal issues and alleviate depression and anxiety.  You want to help teach your child what they need to manage their Asperger’s.

7. Love your child for who they are.  You can support them and guide them, but you can’t change them. Forcing them to be someone different will only result in hurt, loss, and alienation as they grow older.  Help them fit the pieces of their life together.

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Harry Potter Love

I read a recent blog post on “The Happiness Project” about children’s literature and the magical images created by well-written books.  When those imaginary scenes are recreated in front of us, in real life, we experience the same sense of happiness that we felt when we first read the story.  For example, take this real-life art installation at King’s Cross train station in the U.K.

For any fan of Harry Potter , this sculpture is enough to bring a smile to your face.  The author of “The Happiness Project” talks about other sculptures she would create, if given the chance.  To read more from the post on children’s literature sculptures, visit:
http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2011/02/why-do-i-feel-such-intense-happiness-at-the-thought-of-this-piece-of-public-art.html
I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to read some of my favorite young reader novels that I enjoyed as a child (The Secret Garden, The Dark is Rising series, James and the Giant Peach, among others.)  It will be my excuse to jump right back into the wonderful world created in these stories.  When a child is enthralled by a story, they learn to map complex language onto their thoughts.  The character descriptions and dialogue expand their communicative world.  Many of these stories are filled with abstract language, with figurative language forms like metaphors and similes, idioms, and multiple meaning words.  If you are reading to your child, you can choose a book that is several grades more advanced than what they can read on their own.  Try stopping periodically to discuss the plot and new words they may not know.  The middle school students I work with love the Twilight series, and many adult friends of mine have also gotten hooked on the book.  Another favorite is the mystical animal world in the Redwall series complete with characters similar to my childhood favorite Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of Nimh.  And I am excited that my daughter will get to add Harry Potter to her list of childhood books.

 Reading stories with my daughter is one of many ways I can experience my own childhood again and the wonders that come with discovering and learning.  Carolyn Downey, a mom of four in my MOPS group recently put it this way: “One of the things I love most about being a mom is that I have an excuse to do things that I might not do otherwise.  For example… I can look inside a fire truck to see where the firemen sit and discover what buttons to push to sound the alarm… because I have children and I am teaching them to ask questions and be inquisitive.  I can get out of my chair to sing and dance with Professor Banjo… because I have children and I am modeling how to participate in a group.  I can sit and have stories read to me at the library story hour… because I have children and I am helping their literary development.”

So rediscover those childhood books you loved.  Someday soon I will post about writing development, another area very near and dear to my heart.  Who knows, maybe one of your kids will be writing those young reader novels someday, creating magical worlds full of adventure and wonder.