I don't really like parenting books in general. Sure, I've read many of them but it feels like every time I pick one up thinking it's going to be just what I'm looking for, I end up realizing that my kids don't fit into any of the "molds" in any of the books. I read them for a bit and then end up either returning them to the library or feeling like I wasted my money by buying it (most often on impulse) at the bookstore. I do usually leave the book feeling like I took at least one useful thing away from it so I suppose that makes it worth it (if I borrowed it from the library at least). Normally I find that I can get along just fine by "trusting my gut" and "going with the flow" but, here and there, inevitably a new phase rolls around that causes me to frantically run to the library or bookstore. I've come to accept this as part of the parenting package and I'm at peace with it.
My most recent wave of "holy-shit-what-is-going-on-I-have-no-idea-what-I'm-doing-my-kid-is-screwed-for-life" feelings had me rushing to the library to check out the book Raising Your Spirited Child (along with regular phone conversations with my sister Jill, which is much more valuable than anything I could ever read but since I can't have her at my beck and call 24/7 I had to get a book to supplement). I have to say, although it wasn't a cover-to-cover fit for us, it has helped immensely. It helped me to start considering Zoe's more difficult moments less as a personal attack against me and more as a life-struggle for her. Because of that, Nathan and I have been making a conscious effort to get into the habit of asking her where she is coming from, or what's on her mind, or what is so important instead of getting immediately aggravated the second she starts melting down. It's been really eye opening and it feels like we're headed down a more constructive path right now.
I also had a great follow up experience to reading the book last night. I went to a talk at Zoe's school titled "Understanding Your Child's Moods", given by Lisa Dion, the founder of Play Therapy Institute of Colorado. Lisa talked a lot about brain development and shocked us all when she told us that the part of the brain that allows us to take in a challenging situation and make a well thought out decision about how to react doesn't fully form until we are 25 YEARS OLD! She talked about how our brains are designed to react to a challenge in either a "Fight or Flight" or "Freeze, Fall Asleep" response. She mentioned the "myth" that it is possible to become 100% calm and relaxed 100% of the time and assured us that our inability to embody that myth is not because we are not doing enough yoga but because our bodies are not designed to NOT react. We all kind of breathed a collective sigh of relief and I know that I listened to the rest of her talk with the knowledge that I've been too hard on myself for getting off track once in a while and too hard on Zoe for melting down when faced with a challenge. One of Lisa's main points was that we all go through life facing challenges and reacting over and over again. The skill we should be aiming to master isn't to be able to avoid the reaction but to find a way to lessen the amount of time you stay in that reaction and to avoid getting "stuck". The same goes for our kids, and since their brains are developing, it's our job as parents to help them figure out how to get back on track. It's all really interesting and there's no way I'm explaining it correctly so if this sounds interesting you should check out the links above and see if you can get a more complete picture.
Anyway, when Lisa was describing the "Freeze, Fall Asleep" response, it immediately brought to mind one of the biggest challenges I've been facing with Zoe lately. When we get into certain situations (usually involving a crowd of people she's not familiar with) she completely shuts down. I used to call it "shyness" but it's seemed deeper than that lately for some reason. On the worst days, she is pale and tired looking, very clingy, unable to talk to people (even people and kids she knows really well) and obsessed with food (Mommy, when are we going to have snacks? Mommy? When are we having the snacks?). It used to annoy me but lately I've felt really sorry for her mostly because I have no idea how to help her. Anything I do seems to make her more uncomfortable and I don't believe the answer is to totally coddle her and give her anything she wants in the moment. So, I realized that what might be happening is that these situations cause her to shut down because her brain doesn't know how to process all of the information that's flying at her. It's my job to help her figure out things she can do to get her back on track.
So this morning, I told Zoe I wanted to talk to her and she and I cuddled on our bed as I told her I'd noticed lately that she's been feeling uncomfortable in certain situations. I asked her if there was anything I could do to help her when she is feeling like that and we had a great conversation. We decided together that we should call her feelings the "Funny Feeling" and that it might help to put together a "Funny Feeling Kit" that we could bring with us whenever we think she might need it. Here is what we put in the kit:
-paper, markers, crayons and colored pencils
-a beautiful thing
-a tape measure (she usually feels more secure if she has a "project" so she and I thought she could measure a bunch of stuff with the tape measure)
-a stitch counter (I got one for Christmas and she loves playing with it. It makes a really satisfying click when you press the button and she and I thought it would be fun for her to count stuff with it...ie "How many things in this room are yellow? How many adults are here? How many kids? How many cups are in that stack?" etc..)
-a stopwatch (same rational as the two things above...just another way she could create her own little project)
-a few homemade stress balls (while we were talking, I asked her how she feels when she has the "Funny Feeling" and she scrunched up her body and face and clenched her fists. I asked her if she'd like something in the kit that she could squeeze and she liked the idea. They are all balloons filled with either sand, corn starch, barley or a combination of sand, cornstarch and water. I filled one balloon with a funnel, tied it off and then put THAT balloon into another one with the end cut off.) UPDATE: If you are making these stress balls, definitely stick with filling the balloons with cornstarch instead of the other suggestions I just made. Over a few weeks time, the others became VERY stinky and gross. I suspected this might happen, but now I'm sure. Zoe likes the cornstarch one best anyway....
I hope it helps her when she needs it, but we'll just have to wait and see. As I was putting her to bed, I asked her what her favorite part of the day was and without hesitating she said "When we put my 'Funny Feeling Kit' together." I asked her what she liked about doing it and she said "Cuz now I have something to help me when I'm feeling funny." So fingers crossed...if it doesn't work, we'll just try something else!