Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fear Is What We Must Unlearn: Mindfulness And Happier Parenting

I'll have what he's having.
I went to bed, crying, the other night. 

I told my husband it had been a bad day. The children argued often. Our daughter was especially difficult at various moments. I lost my temper too much. No one listened to what I needed. It felt as though everyone, including the dog and cat, wanted something from me every single minute of the day

I felt disconnected, both from my family and from myself. It was my son's special night to fall asleep in our bed with me and when the lights went out he was on the far side of a king-sized bed feeling like I didn't want him there. 

So he cried. 

And I cried. 

This, Too, Shall Pass

Recently, on a Facebook page I moderate for families with neuro-diverse kids, I was having a conversation with some friends about the phrase, "This, too, shall pass." Parents use it often in jest when talking about tough moments with their children. Sometimes for parents of a neuro-diverse child it does seem like perhaps their kid will always be "that kid" and maybe "this" won't actually pass. Maybe, you think to yourself, I will always be taking my child to different therapies every day of the week. Maybe my child will never be comfortable making friends. Maybe my child will always struggle with being especially anxious and rigid. 

Fear Talking

The fear of "what should be" can take over for some people. This is not just for parents of special needs kids. I know plenty of parents whose kids are typically developing and yet, the parents get themselves tied up in knots, thinking "she is never going to eat vegetables!" or "he is always so shy with other kids, how is he ever going to make friends?" Or "He should be potty trained by now, why is he still in diapers? "
When we get stuck in our thoughts of how our child
"should" behave, we lose sight of who our child
is right now, in the moment.
[photo credit]
You may notice, in your more mindful moments, that what happens when we start speaking like this is that most likely there is a little commentary that comes after those worried sentences that you say only to yourself:

"She is never going to eat her vegetables and I am afraid she is going to develop terrible eating habits and get fat and have cavities and feel terrible about herself!" 

"He is always so aggressive with other kids, how is he ever going to make friends? I am afraid that no one will like him and he will end up being a bully and have no friends and maybe he will blame me and maybe I am a terrible mother because I don't know how to help him!" 

"Why is he still in diapers? His brother was potty trained at this there something wrong with him? Maybe he has a terrible delay that I have missed! Maybe it's my fault! I should be doing more/less/something different than I am doing!"

I often refer to this as "Fear Talk". The insidious thing about it is that we aren't even consciously aware that we are Fear Talking. Because these are sentences we don't dare say out loud for fear they will come true or for fear they will make us look crazy. They live somewhere in our subconscious. But Fear Talk can make us lash out at our children or we internalize the emotions this talk creates and we erupt in myriad other ways. We let our fear take over and it has a mind of its own. 

But if we did dare, if we did say them out loud, we could really understand the things we fear when our children's behaviors push our buttons. 

The night I cried myself to sleep I think I had gotten caught up in feeling as though my daughter's difficult behaviors were never going to change. Going through my head were phrases like "she is never going to stop overreacting!", "she always refuses to take other people's perspectives!", "she makes everything so difficult!" "She's being mean and obnoxious to her brother!" Additionally, I fall into a habit I like to refer to as SHOULD-ING: "she should be different than she is", "she should be less obstinate", "she should do what I ask her to do without throwing a fit". But where does shoulding-ing on my kids get me? 

Pay Attention As The Weather Changes
Some days can feel almost too much to take.
[photo credit]

Obviously, I know in my heart that our daughter doesn't always do anything. And I know, logically, that focusing on how I think things "should be" doesn't help and only makes me miserable about what IS. And really, truly, I know she is struggling with a lot of things that cause her difficult behavior. But, in tough parenting moments when her emotional challenges make even the smallest conflict into a cataclysmic event, I sometimes have trouble being logical. I get triggered. and my negative frame of mind can take over in such a way that I get stuck feeling like my life is just a big, black cloud of crap. 

And it will continue to be crap. 


I know many of you struggle with those same sort of thoughts - whether it's depression, exhaustion, stress, overwhelm, special needs kids, single parenting - whatever it is, it's not easy to drag yourself out of that pit you keep digging with your Fear Talk and should-ing. "I am afraid I will never be the mother they need", "I am afraid they will end up on the therapist's couch talking about how I ruined their lives", "I am afraid to tell my husband that today was so hard because I don't want to give him anything else to stress about" "I should be able to handle this without losing my temper" "I should be a better parent/partner"...there are so many variations. 

So, I do know my life isn't a big, black cloud of crap. 

As Buddhist nun, author and teacher, Pema Chodron, says,
"Practicing compassionate inquiry into our reactions and
strategies is fundamental to the process of awakening".
Without this questioning and this awareness, we remain
stuck in behavior patterns with our loved ones. 
There are moments I feel like it is, but if I don't latch on to those moments, they really do pass. It is sort of like watching the weather. We can lay back and notice the sky or the temperature changing and we simply notice it. We don't give meaning to the weather; we don't try hold on to a beautiful day because we fear it will never come back. We don't curse the storm as it happens, because we know it will ultimately pass. There is no should-ing. Weather just is. Hot sun, cool wind, blistering cold, dark nights...they are backdrops to our daily existence. 

So are our emotions. 

To be mindful of our emotions means, in essence, to notice them as they rise up, to be aware of them as they shift, pass on and new feelings show up. Like the clouds. These emotions do not need to have meaning attached to them. There does not need to be Fear Talk. The process of noticing an experience with my daughter as she is expressing herself in a rigid and anxious manner might go something like this:

When she acts this way, I feel so tense! I feel angry! 
I notice my heart beating fast. 

When she rolls her eyes and sticks out her tongue I feel like throwing something. My hands are clenched. 
My body feels so tight. 
I feel the urge to yell.
I feel the urge to change her behavior. 
I notice how much I want to do something.

That is curious to me. 
Why do I need to do something?
Deep breath.

I need to remember who she is and what my goal is. 
Deep breath. 
Remember what you love about her.

I notice how small she is. 
My body is feeling more calm. 
I feel sympathy for how hard this can be for her. 
I remember that she struggles with so much.
I feel softness in my face and jaw.
I want to help her.

All of this is in my head and can take many minutes from start to finish. Because it still doesn't come so naturally to me, I am not always able to accomplish this intention of being so present with my daughter. But because I know what extreme anger some of her behaviors trigger for me, I have to set a real intention to make mindfulness a part of my daily life.
Take a few minutes of each day, wherever you are, to mindfully
tune in to yourself and your surroundings.
[photo credit]

The more I practice, the easier and the more automatic being mindful in such a stressful environment becomes. But mindfulness needs to be practiced for its own sake in stress-free situations, not just when there is an urgent need for it, so that one gets a feel for it. Only then does it becomes a resource. 

Mindfulness practice is greatly aided by choosing to set time aside regularly to meditate. There are always other pressures, many responsibilities and lists of things to get done that take precedence over just sitting, or just walking, in a mindful manner. However, that kind of practice provides a base, or anchor, for remaining mindful when habitual tensions or reactions are triggered. 

Finding Sunshine Amid The Clouds

The funny thing is, I have been trying to write this post for about a month but kept getting stuck because I didn't know what point I was trying to make. But today, now that I finally got back to it, coincidences are hitting me over the head about the point I am trying to make. 

Rachel Macy Stafford's blog, "Hands Free Mama" is a favorite of mine. Yesterday she shared a post called "Thank You Not-So Pleasant Moments In Life" in which she wrote about finding a new perspective:
" life’s daily blessings among the distractions and challenges of life. I call this approach “Glimmers of Goodness.” Because having a full and complete day of goodness is hard, maybe even impossible, with life’s daily stresses of children, bills, schedules, deadlines, responsibilities, and pressures. But finding Glimmers of Goodness within a day is possible—even when you are irritated, annoyed, or frustrated. In fact, it is in times of overwhelm that I can find these bright spots most easily. It may sound odd, but I’ve been taking each not-so-pleasant experience or feeling and thanking it. And from that place of gratitude, I find a Glimmer of Goodness."
"...for when you take in positive experiences, you
are not only growing flowers in your mind.
You are growing new neural circuits in your
brain. You are hardwiring happiness."
And because I'm sitting in jury duty today (hence the free time to actually write a long-delayed blog post) I am also reading Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidencewhich has been on my "must read" list for a while. Strangely enough, this book is not simply about brain science (one of my geeky loves), but it is also about mindfulness. 

In the early pages of the book, the author reminds us that we must not only observe our minds in order to get past worries, stress, anger or sadness, we must actively seek out positive experiences - what he refers to as "growing flowers" in our brains - so we increase our inner strength and ability to handle tough times. 
"Merely witnessing stress, worries, irritability or a blue mood will not necessarily uproot any of these. [...]the brain evolved to learn all too well from negative experiences, and it stores them in long-lasting neural structures. Nor does being with your mind by itself grow gratitude, enthusiasm, honesty, creativity, or many other inner strengths such as calm and insight that enable you to feel all your feelings and face your inner shadows even when it's hard" ~ Rick Hanson, PhD
So, focusing on the "shoulds" and the Fear Talk keeps our brains - and thus, ourselves - rooted in the experiences that make us suffer. Instead, noticing the good moments (or thanking the no-so pleasant moments) and being aware of them for more than the fleeting second we usually zoom past them, helps us ultimately cultivate the sort of brain that stays connected, peaceful and dare I say...happy...during times that would have previously sent us flying into tantrums and tears. 

Happiness Revealed

This 2011 TedxSF video from Louie Schwartzberg originally planted the seed for this post. As I watched it, I heard these words from Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast: 
"Look at the sky. We so rarely look at the sky. We so rarely note how different it is from moment to moment, with clouds coming and going. We just think of the weather, and even with the weather, we don't think of all the many nuances of weather. We just think of good weather and bad weather. This day, right now, has unique weather, maybe a kind that will never exactly in that form come again. That formation of clouds in the sky will never be the same as it is right now. Open your eyes. Look at that." 
After watching this beautiful video numerous times, I sat with that quote and something in my mind prompted me to replace the word "sky", with the words, "your child". I then replaced the word "weather" with "behavior". And so I began to think about her good weather, her bad weather and her unique weather. 

Was I really seeing it? 

Or was I simply should-ing it?

Please take 10 minutes and watch Louie Schwartzberg's video Happiness Revealed. You'll be glad you did. 

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