Thursday, February 28, 2013

On being unfragile

I've been reading, slowly and intermittently, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. It's about the curious fact that some things grow stronger when faced with a stress. Your muscles, for example, need resistance in order to grow strong; if you lie in bed for a month they atrophy. Then there's the Hydra, who grew two new heads each time one was lopped off.

Not that I want to be a Hydra. But y'know, it would be handy to go a step further than bouncing back from difficulty, and grow stronger.

I was having a hard time processing some of the book, until the author pointed out that the situations in which antifragility is possible are quite specific. Too much stress for too long a time is harmful; you must have a period of recovery or rest in which to process what has happened and prepare for the next stage. Chronic stress -- whether situational, like eternally rough finances, or self-imposed perfectionism -- is almost always destructive. After all, if you work out in the gym all day every day your muscles get exhausted rather than stronger. It's the break that allows for regrouping, progress, increased strength.

Most of us, I think, imagine inner strength is something we either have or don't-have. The idea that stress could be good for us is distasteful: it means we have to go through difficulty. Worse, it means we have to take responsibility for how we respond to stress, because we actually have a choice (of sorts) when it comes to what to do with it. We can cave, we can persevere, or we can continue looking for growth.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dancing happily

Dancer will be going to Miami City Ballet's summer program this year. She was admitted to two other big-name programs as well, but this is her top choice. Five weeks of technique and Balanchine, with lots of performing.  It's very exciting.

In a few weeks Dancer's school will be having their spring performance. They are doing excerpts from Sleeping Beauty. Casting isn't up yet, but Dancer will have one of the fairy solos. If you are interested in going, I'll send details.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Identifying problems

One of the cardinal rules of parenting is that if you want a child to change his ways, you have to make the problem his problem. You see, if Mom doesn't like a messy floor, that's Mom's problem. And if you think your kid is going to volunteer to solve your problems, you are almost certainly wrong.

Another cardinal rule of parenting is that if you, the parent, are feeling perpetually frustrated by a recurring kid situation, chances are that you are owning the kid's problem. A recent example: Child A fusses and moans and delays doing homework. I encourage/remind/berate until, after weeks of this, I am worn out and annoyed and am no longer acting like the Mom I Want to Be. Fact: on some level this child is smarter than me. He or she has figured out how to transfer ownership of the problem by re-defining it from being about homework to being a matter of Mom and her temper.

How did that happen?

Partly it happened because there are very good reasons I want this child to do homework. It's in his or her long-term interests (I have a goal of having the child develop good work habits and perseverance), and it's also in his or her intermediate-term interests (I know grades affect other prospects). It's also in my short-term interest to make sure the homework gets done, because this particular child becomes frantic when suddenly it's time to leave for school and the work is unfinished. Then I have to endure the meltdown and use a pile of energy helping the child manage anxiety.

The child, being a child, has little interest in, awareness of or motivation to work for the longer term. The child, being a human being, has great interest in avoiding inconvenience and work. Result: we have a problem.

When I get stuck in a parenting rut, one of the first things I ask myself is What problem am I facing? It takes some probing, because in all probability the real problem isn't the one I've been addressing. 

For example, there's a huge difference between saying "This kid has to STOP acting that way!" and "I need to teach my child how to overcome procrastination". With choice #2 you can develop a plan to overcome the problem. You can do a Google search on effective strategies to deal with procrastination. You can sit the child down (not at homework time) and talk about how procrastination is adding friction to family life, and why developing ways to identify and overcome it is an important life skill.  You can explain that it's not Mom's job to save the child from the consequences of putting things off, but to teach him skills to overcome the tendency, and help him  practice those skills. And after that you can choose -- heroically -- to swallow your instinctive reaction to roar "Get busy!" and say things like, "Hmmm, it looks to me like you're procrastinating. Are you?" or "Are you keeping track of the time?" You can swallow hard and suppress your urge to nag and say sympathetically, "Wow, you're right: it's going to be scary to go to school without your work done. It's your choice."

If you define the problem as "This child is driving me crazy", you go another route. You will dig your rut deeper, nagging more, imposing draconian punishments, and desperately flinging golden carrots to lure your child to STOP BEHAVING LIKE THAT! You will vent to your friends and spouse, and that won't help. It won't help because you own the problem, and because the problem (now) is your frustration.

Rule of thumb: if your goal is to get someone to stop it! you almost certainly haven't identified the right problem.

Rule of thumb: if your strategy is to nag, you own the problem.

More later...


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Anxiety, redux

I took Little Guy for an evaluation last week. I've known for some time -- years, in fact -- that he has anxiety issues. I tend not to see them as clearly as I see them in some of my other kids, because they flare up more when I'm not around. We've been working on it, and making progress, though the past couple of months have brought some events that have set Little Guy back a bit.

So I took him for the evaluation, because although I know (oh, how I know!) how to handle anxiety in kids, I'm stretched awfully thin these days. I can't do everything, all the time.

It's a sobering thing to sit in a room with three mental health professionals and see them grow increasingly serious and compassionate as you talk about what your family has gone through. It's both validating and daunting.

I wouldn't have taken Little Guy in to be evaluated if I hadn't thought there was something to evaluate. And still, in the way life is, my heart just about broke when he was given a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. There's something about a label that hits you in the stomach.

So I teared up a bit, and allowed myself an afternoon to feel sad. The doctors shared information with me about some incidents which had taken place at home which I hadn't known about, but should have. Little Guy is especially sensitive to blow-ups, and when you've got an older brother with 'issues' those are fairly common. I was aware that when I'm out of the house the two guys have had arguments. What I hadn't known was how severe these were, nor how triggering they were to Little Guy's anxiety. And frankly, I'd been so concerned with another kid who is falling apart at the seams that I hadn't fully absorbed the information I had been told.

So. What appears to ameliorate the conflicts between the boys appears to be me, since we don't have these kinds of problems much when I'm at home. So I thought through how to shift life around. Then I was sad again, for a bit, at the thought of having to make my life smaller in order to make my child's life bigger. I will do it, of course. That's what moms do. But it's important, before one picks up the elephant, to spend some time acknowledging it will be a heavy load.

Now, several days later, the label doesn't bother me. It's a label. It's useful, inasmuch as it helps me define the kind of help I need for my son.

Now, several days later, what seemed burdensome in prospect is less difficult than imagined. And I daresay the label helps to make it easier because it makes the problem clearer, and therefore easier to focus on. I have set a short-term goal of trying to get through a full week without any blow-ups between my over-irritable ones, because giving everyone a break is an urgent priority. (There's a sense in which arguments are like a bronchial infection; your throat can become so irritated that you cough even after the germs are gone. Then you have to find a way to suppress the reaction so that the cough doesn't irritate the throat more and perpetuate the problem. What I'm trying to do is let the irritation subside enough to allow healing to take place.)

Now, several days later, I realize that part of what was triggering my other falling-apart kid was the conflicts between the boys. So there's some efficiency in this. Which I definitely appreciate.

The moral of the story, so far? There are several:

  • It's helpful to define the problem, even if the definition makes you feel sad.
  • It's okay to feel sad over sad things. 
  • You never know as much as you think you do.
  • Most bad feelings subside, if you let them.
  • Even if you feel awful, you can still make progress
Nothing new, but then most of what we need to learn (again) is not novel.