When faced with challenges, no matter what those challenges are, I find that it helps to do two things. First, figure out how to frame your challenges in a way that orients you (or your child) towards acceptance, resilience, and solutions. Second, learn how to adjust your focus, deciding when to zoom in and recognizing when to zoom out. This article is the first in a two-part series, with a discussion of Adjusting Your Focus in the next post.
Find a Frame
You may not realize it, but how you choose to think about and talk about your challenge sets the stage for how you work through the situation. For example, if you have a child who resists anything new, asks you a million questions about upcoming events, and then melts down as you’re leaving for those events, you will probably find yourself in a bit of a cycle with her. You tell her about a party, she whines and complains for a bit and then acceptance sets in. She stops complaining and she moves on to questioning. She asks you questions you can answer and questions you couldn’t possibly know the answers to. She asks you the same questions you’ve answered and she asks you the same questions you told her you couldn’t answer. Now, you’re really getting annoyed. Your answers are shorter and your tone is sharper. It’s time to get ready to go and you start telling her to hurry up. She stalls, she stomps, she shuts down. You’re becoming more and more frustrated and hurried. Everyone is stressed. And this situation repeats over, and over, and over again.
Step back and recognize patterns. Once you get to the party and everything is better, you may just sort of put the whole ugly incident behind you and prefer not to dwell on it. But it will happen again and stepping back to think about what just happened will help you figure out how to handle it differently the next time. Using the example above, you may step back and figure out that your daughter is the kind of kid who gets nervous when she doesn’t know what to expect. Her nerves lead her to first try to avoid the situation, then maybe frantically try to gather information about the situation, and then she goes into fight or flight mode.
Think about the temperaments, characteristics, and hot spots of those involved. Figure out how you would describe your child using as many adjectives as you can. Is she cautious? Particular? Strong-willed? Responsible? Adventurous? Curious? Spontaneous? Think about how you would describe yourself. What drives your child crazy? What drives you crazy? Does your child hate it when you give them instructions as they’ve just settled down to watch a show? Do you hate running late? Reflect, be honest, and put it all down on paper. Once it’s on paper, it’s easy to see how some of the qualities within our children, ourselves, and partners compliment and work well with the qualities of others in the family. And it’s even easier to see where some of those qualities butt right up against the things that drive us crazy.
Tell the story. Now that you’re paying attention to patterns and you see how your family members’ attributes play a role in those patterns, develop a narrative for how it all fits together. Again, using the example above, you might come up with something like this, “Kate is the kind of kid who likes to be prepared. She likes to know a plan and she’s very good at developing her own ideas – she’s constantly coming up with grand plans and she can actually see them through. She once organized a talent show for the entire neighborhood! I tend to be more of last minute type of person, thinking about only one or two steps ahead. I’m generally pretty easy going and flexible and can shift from one thing to the next quickly. It irritates Kate when I spring things on her. It’s hard for me to see what the big deal is about going to a party – it’s fun, her friends will be there, and she always has a good time once she gets there. I can see, though, that when she hears about going somewhere or doing something that’s not a part of her plan, it throws her a little. She likes to find out as much as she can about what’s coming up so she can prepare herself mentally. Right before its time to leave, she gets nervous again and acts like a completely different kid. I think it’s just because she’s overwhelmed and not sure how to handle all of her nervous energy. When she starts stalling or shutting down, I get irritated because I hate being late. If I start rushing her, it usually makes things worse. When I stay calm, she usually gets herself together pretty quickly. Once we get to the party, we all end up having a great time.”
Make a plan. Share the story with your family and ask for ideas for how to make those situations better the next time. Allow everyone to have input and decide on a plan. Add it to your story. “We’re going to try to keep a calendar with our plans on it so everyone can see what’s coming up. When Kate has questions about what to expect, I’ll remember that she’s not trying to annoy me; she just trying to make a tough situation easier for herself. I’ll let her know what I know and I can help her make some guesses about what we don’t know. We’ll leave plenty of time to get out the door so that Kate doesn’t feel rushed, which ends up making her more stressed. She’ll remind herself that she’s just feeling nervous while she waits and isn’t sure what it will be like and that once she’s there, she’ll have a good time. She’ll try to do something fun and distracting while she waits to keep her mind off of her worries.” Try out the plan and rewrite the story as needed.