Friday, September 14, 2012

Survivable discomfort

One evening more than a decade ago, I had a hard time getting to sleep because I was going to take Eldest and Big Guy to gymnastics for the first time the next day. I'd never been to the place before, and for some reason kept wondering what it would look like. After 20 minutes of maybe it'll look like this scenarios I got irritated with myself, and chided, "Julia, there's only one thing you know for certain: reality will never be the same as anything you come up with!"

It was true. That simple thought has released me from untold hours of needless wondering in other situations, too. In its own weird way it's liberating to admit that although we can sketch a rough outline of a few items in our future landscape, we can't draw a true picture. You see, it's okay not to know. It's normal not to know. And in most cases, we don't even need to know all that much to cope with what comes next.

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A few weeks back as I thought about the start of school, I put a mental flag on the first two weeks of September: EXPECT BUMPS. It does help if you're not caught off guard. When you know stress is heading your way, it's a good idea to fortify your patience and shore up your determination. When I'm yearning to know what lies ahead, one thing that makes a functional difference is focusing on gathering my inner resources.

I remind myself, for example, of the symptoms of stress in each of my kids. That way when one child suddenly turns into a screaming mimi I have a shot at handling the situation as a stress reaction instead of a discipline problem. (This is not to say I always remember this at the moment of meltdown, but at least I can smack my forehead afterwards and do a little better half an hour later, when the next meltdown hits).

It's helpful to think ahead through what I'll say and do when the inevitable complaints and arguments surface. (I do have other options besides feeling aggravated.) I remind myself not to expect gratitude or cooperation or thoughtfulness, so that I don't feel put-out when others, in their stressed-out stressiness, neglect to return kindness with kindness.

When you're heading into a stressful time, it's good to think ahead to how to modify your expectations.

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am not immune to the modern disease of wanting to protect my children from pain and suffering. I find that I need a clearer boundary between a) being a necessary buffer from unnecessary harshness and b) being a coddler who seeks to protect my children from any hardship. So I've been focused lately on what I call survivable discomfort.

We can live through an awful lot that we think is unbearable. The acid test is this: what would you do if you had no choice? Could you that thing you think you can't? Would you do it?

We intensely dislike discomfort, but the truth is that we can survive it. And we are immensely stronger once we discover this. Our children are stronger once they know that somewhere deep below their fears and likes is a core strength that often goes untapped.

So sometimes (perhaps more often than we think) it's best to offer no more than empathy when a child is unhappy or upset. Sometimes (perhaps often) the right thing to do is to teach the child how to handle his unhappiness, and simply provide support and a few ideas as he figures out what to do.

Yes, we need to watch, surreptitiously but alertly, to see whether the child is sinking or learning to swim. We need to watch carefully, and distinguish between our fears that the child will sink and the real signs of drowning.

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All of which is to say that I think we will eventually survive going back to school.

1 comment:

  1. "That way when one child suddenly turns into a screaming mimi I have a shot at handling the situation as a stress reaction instead of a discipline problem."
    Thanks for these words. I need to work on this. Sometimes I am annoyed with my daughter when she has a melt down which doesn't help me to deal with it at all. Remembering that it is a reaction to something will help me.