Friday, December 9, 2011

When you're not the mom you want to be

I haven't done a lot of blogging in the last few months, mostly because I'm trying to figure out life.

I promised during the summer to write about what I was learning through a number of parenting and education books I had been reading. There were several thought-provoking ones among them, such as Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's Nurture Shock and Ron Clark's The Excellent 11.

But the book that affected me the most was one I discovered by accident while reading a mystery novel (Lisa Gardner's Live to Tell). The novel tells the story of a group of children in a residential treatment center for kids with emotional and behavioral issues, whose families are being murdered. In the author's acknowledgements, she describes being drawn to write the story because of the experiences of a friend with such a child. She also cites Dr. Ross W. Greene's book, The Explosive Child and his "collaborative problem-solving approach," for shaping her thinking about kids with behavioral challenges and what can help them.

I found Dr. Greene's book in the library and decided to read it out of curiosity, not thinking it was really relevant to my life. My daughter's behavior isn't explosive (characterized by fits of rage, extreme tantrums and even violence). And yet, almost immediately upon starting it I knew that the book was extremely relevant to both my daughter and me.

The book establishes a key premise: that explosive children do not behave that way intentionally, because children do as well as they can. Instead, explosive children tend to lack certain skills that make less extreme emotional reactions possible. These include such things as the ability to tolerate frustration, disappointment and sudden changes; the ability to positively express and regulate one's emotions; perspective-taking and empathy; and others. When they encounter life's difficulties, they don't know how to handle it other than to explode.

The author describes his concept of collaborative problem-solving as a method in which invite your child to work through problems together, while you model and guide for your child ways to develop the personal and interpersonal skills they might be lacking.

As I read this, I knew exactly how it applied to my child and me. She doesn't explode when she's frustrated, disappointed, or struggling with her emotions; instead, she sulks and withdraws. It's not a more constructive method of handling problems, simply less destructive than exploding.

But I also realized this: I am not really equipped at this point to guide and model a different way for her, because I do the exact same thing. When I am frustrated, angry, overwhelmed or hurt, I sulk and I withdraw.

Reacting this way has had many negative effects on my family relationships, friendships, and career. I am trying to learn how to deal with it for my own sake and so that I can in turn help my daughter.

I met recently with our minister and talked through some of this. She pinpointed something about me: isolation has been a theme of my life. She's right. I have often heard that people's greatest fears are public speaking and death. I have never particularly feared either of those, but I have always feared being alone. Yet I have often felt alone, despite this fear. I am not shy, but I am reserved, and it is difficult for me to move past the acquaintance stage into true friendship with people--one of the reasons why our move to Washington State has been so difficult for me. (That is one area in which my daughter and I differ. She, like her father, is very outgoing).

It wasn't difficult for me to pinpoint the start of my isolation: something pretty awful happened to me when I was six (for a variety of reasons, I don't want to go into it online). But it seared into my psyche that I couldn't trust people to care about my needs or pain, and that it was dangerous to be vulnerable.

And that lesson took hold quickly. A year later, when I was 7, I was in a work group of four students in my class at school, and one of the other girls in the group began taunting me for reasons I don't remember. She was relentless to the point of leaving me in tears. But they were silent tears, so as not to attract the attention of our teacher. Another girl in the group went up to the teacher to ask for tissue for me. I assume the same girl later told the teacher what happened. The next morning, my teacher pulled me aside and asked, "Why didn't you tell me what was going on?"

I shrugged and didn't answer, but I was thinking, "Because you wouldn't have done anything about it." Already in second grade, I was that cynical.

I'm meeting with my minister again next week to discuss this further. But I know it's the root of my tendency to withdraw from others and myself when I'm facing problems, and my daughter is learning that from me. I want to be able to show her, and help her, discover a more positive way of dealing with difficulties.

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