Life Lessons Learned From My Son #6- #10
6. I'm stronger than you think- Moms are protective of their children, but when you have a child with special needs, the urge to protect and shield your child is much stronger. Having a child with an anxiety disorder who cannot talk at school makes him vulnerable. He cannot stand up for himself, cannot tell the teacher he has to use the restroom, cannot express his feelings aloud whether he wants to laugh or cry. As my child becomes older, I realize that he has an inner strength and perseverance AND that by being over protective I am doing him a disservice. He has to learn how to find his voice, which will only come after he learns to apply his coping mechanisms.
That's where I and the counselor come in. I cannot enable my child, but at the same time, I have to be his safe place, help him to apply coping mechanisms at home, and let him know that I believe in him. Sometimes this means he will have to deal with uncomfortable situations and learn from them as we process afterwards. It's a delicate balance.
7. Help me to cope, not avoid my anxiety- This lesson ties in with the previous one. When my son was first diagnosed with S.M., I had a strong, overpowering urge to shield my son from any situation that would make him anxious. Had I really done that, we literally would have never left the house. Ever. He was three years old at the time and in preschool. And, he was a typical preschooler in that he was just learning to control and understand his emotions. At the time, he could not verbalize how he felt at school (other than he did not want to go) and could not explain why he did not talk at school. Was I protective of him? Yes! And maybe a little too much.
As the years progressed, I shifted my focus from: How can I help him to avoid situations that will terrify him? to How can I help him cope before, during, and after the even? Some of the coping strategies that we used were journaling (drawing pictures and later writing), praying, using pictures to communicate at school, lots of active play, breathing exercises, and stuffed animals and stress balls.
8. I need multiple outlets in which to express myself- I have three sons. Two of them have used the arts in which to escape, express themselves, and to recharge. Early on, I noticed that my youngest son had an affinity to music and art. At home, he was constantly singing, dancing, and creating art projects. And he liked to do these activities by himself. He was and is an introvert, and I scrambled to find ways to nurture and foster his interests.
However, at school, art and music classes are not fun. Not at all. These classes are a little less structured and in music class, he is expected to sing aloud. He used to lip sync but now, at least at concerts, he will not move his lips at all. As with many kids with S.M., he doesn't want to draw attention to himself. So, I learned quickly that I must find other outlets for him that he finds "safer". This includes allowing for messy arts and crafts projects at home and for taking music classes where I can be present. Sometimes just having me in the room is all that it takes for him to be secure. And now, this summer he wants to take an art class where he knows he will be alone without me. Yes!
9. I want to go to parties, but they are so stressful! Before my son was diagnosed, I could not understand why he did not want to attend birthday or Christmas parties- with or without me or his brother who is only fourteen months older than he. What kid doesn't like to go to parties?
As a toddler and preschooler, he would scream, cry, throw a tantrum, and try to hide. He would sob and beg for me to hold him. I had no idea he was terrified to be among strangers, especially children his own age that would most likely expect him to talk.
Later, when he was in kindergarten, he was able to verbalize that he did not want to go to parties if his classmates would be there. He was terrified to speak or eat in front of them. He could not engage in play. So once I learned this, even if I didn't understand it, I needed to respect his feelings. And help him grow to be more secure, to be in charge of his feelings, and to help him when he wanted to go to parties. We started with both of us attending parties his older brother was invited to, and later he progressed to the point where he wanted to go to classmates' parties. Now, he goes to parties without me, but still attends with his brother, as long as the parents are accepting of that.
10. As with all children, maturity brings new insights- When you read the research on S.M., the emphasis is on early treatment. If untreated, the anxiety will only get worse and will not just go away. Children with S.M. will grow into adults with S.M. When you read this as a parent, you go into panic mode, or at least I did.
And, you want a fix- a quick fix -STAT! My son was in counseling and therapy when he was three. However, after a year we stopped because having to travel a 3 hour round trip once or twice a week was too much for his school and my work schedules. Then, the guilt started and then the worry that my child would remain this way forever. I talked with other counselors and doctors. I read books. And I implemented all that I had learned and slowly, very slowly I started to see results. Like, when his kindergarten teacher let me know that he was smiling in class AND raising his hand. That he whispered an answer in FRONT of the ENTIRE class!
And from there, the progress started to snowball. He is not finished growing yet. In fact, at the age of eight, he has regressed somewhat, yet matured in other ways. He can now verbalize his feelings, tell me exactly what it feels like at school (pounding heart, chest pain, a tight throat). He can rationalize more now that he is older and can use deep breathing on his own and troubleshoot how to communicate with his teacher (he writes her notes and whispers to her!).
So, just like my older son who has Aspergers, I know that throughout his childhood, there will be many ups and downs. He will not just outgrow his diagnosis. And his diagnosis does not and will not define or limit him. It is my job to keep my eyes wide open because I really think my sons teach me a heck of a lot more than I teach them.