Sunday, 24 May 2020

How to Help Your Family Thrive During Lockdown
While we’re all living on top of each other, or as my grandmother used to say, ‘living in each other’s pockets,’ I have some hints and tips for handling close proximity with many people for long time periods.

The situation, the lockdown around the world, has created a lot of stress for a lot of people who aren’t used to this much contact, for this kind of duration, in this few locations, with this little relief. Other cultures and the past have things they can teach us for situations like this.

My own experience was sea time with homeschooling kids: three of us together (our two girls and me, with dad at work or at sea) nearly all of the time for the best part of twelve or so years, until they really started spending a lot more time out of the house on their own longer and longer activities… Not stuck in the house or in lockdown by any means, but definitely all together more of the time than most families with similar aged kids.

Privacy in Crowded Places
One interesting piece I read a long time ago (source long forgotten) was an anthropologist explaining that one of the reasons why people in places like India, where many people might live in very few rooms, have no need for the kind of ‘100sq feet of individual privacy behind a door’ that most people expect everyone in a house to have, is that their manners are quite different.

The definition of interrupting, for example. Here, ‘interrupting’ is interjecting during someone’s conversation, or talking when someone else is talking, or seeing that someone is busy doing something and asking or demanding to move their attention to something else.

This is also true of most everywhere, but some add a piece: non-responsive people are ‘busy’ even if they appear to be doing nothing: a member of the household is sitting in one corner of a room staring into space and someone wants her to answer a question. They approach and speak and she doesn’t respond.

In my culture, that’s considered to be extremely bad manners, as one is expected to speak when spoken to, and the rank or age of the people involved isn’t relevant. In places with very little opportunity for physical privacy, it’s considered to be extremely rude to interrupt someone who is having a moment of inward privacy, after the initial approach.
I remember long ago when it was not unusual for even the media to show this (My Three Sons, Leave it to Beaver, et al), with dad behind a newspaper; even my own grandfather ‘resting’ in the living room, ‘not sleeping, checking my eyelids for pinholes.’ 

Now, with all this openness and availability where kids and adults are encourage to ask questions directly, anyone out in the common spaces of a home are considered fair game, we don’t have the means to make it clear ‘don’t bother me, dude’ without seeming to be very rude.

Kids, even in public spaces, are expected to respond to total strangers’ impertinent questions (like ‘how old are you?’ or ‘why aren’t you in school today?’) when asking the same things back would be considered very rude (like ‘how old are you, lady?’ or ‘why aren’t you working, old man?’)

This is a novel idea, I think, for many people. Imagine how different a cubicle farm –sorry, I mean Open Concept Office Space—would be if everyone understood such a simple piece of etiquette! ‘Oh, Marlan is busy thinking about something, I’ll come back later…’

For this current situation, all social distancing from others and staying home as much as possible, it might be a way to approach the problem of ‘many people who aren’t accustomed to sharing this little space for this long together…’

Cabin Fever Cures
When the smell of the house and the people in it all become a bit too familiar, the growing irritation is often called cabin fever, from when people would be trapped for the winter inside very small space, often with people used to spending most of the day outdoors, working or playing, with only one or two indoor workers most of the time (yeah, it was usually mom, or the camp cook.) There are ways of passing this time that are productive, interesting, stress-relieving… but spring was looked forward to with a fervour that is uncommon today even in people who hate snow, winter, or dark grey days.

Sometimes, people would freak out and bolt outside, usually triggered by some small, repetitive annoyance performed by one of the other residents (sniffing or chewing too loudly, saying the same mindless phrase one too many times, being helplessly cheerful in the face of growing annoyance, etc.)

Here, again, the etiquette of more formal societies and more formal times in history can come to the rescue. Making extraneous noises, especially body noises, is optional for all but the most disabled of folk, even if it takes practice to learn and to remember –it’s a relationship-extending (and sometimes life-extending) effort. Years ago, a comedian would tell a big long story about how incredibly irritating a partner or someone was, and then turn—as if to the judge in a courtroom—and say ‘and that’s when I killed them, your honour.’

Formalities like greeting people who enter a room, excusing oneself from the table or the room (without explaining, just saying ‘excuse me for a moment’) to make noises or smells or texts or phone calls elsewhere, closing the door on an animated phone or zoom conversation, reducing the volume of the media being enjoyed to the level that others can’t hear it through the headset, bathing frequently enough not to have a signature scent precede one into the room, and handling tools and cutlery with care to minimize the noise, can go a long way to making life in a crowded home less irritating. can help, because visual ‘noise’ is subtly, but very much really, overstimulating and adds to stress. Even just packing things into boxes or bins can reduce the ‘noise’ in a room enough to make it feel spacious and airy…

Lowering the actual volume can help, as can turning off the screens, computers, tablets, lights, appliances and phones when not in use can make a home remarkably quieter and less stressful to be in.

Manspread has to be mentioned as a separate issue: taking up more space than your seat on a many-seat piece of furniture is hostile in a not-so-subtle way, and it doesn’t lend itself to peaceful space-sharing with others. When you need to spread out, make yourself feel big, or ‘really relax’ do so in your bed, in your bedroom alone, or outdoors. The need is real, meeting it on the only couch that faces the only tv is not sweet. Awareness
This is not a fun vacation or a benign break from real life for most people, no matter how much they might have asked for one. Even people who are not overly concerned about themselves or their families contracting this disease are faced with worries and concerns over an unknown future that no one can currently predict. 

Will the economy recover? Will it collapse? Will vacationing ever be possible again? Will our company or industry collapse? Will we be living through another Great Depression or will prosperity like the Roaring 20s come next? Will we ever be able to have a big wedding, a family reunion, sporting events or music festivals? Are the concerts or conventions now a thing of the past? Will there be pro sports again? Olympics?

There are many unknowns and unanswerable questions, today, and they have been unknown and unanswerable since the earliest mentions of this virus in the news. For many people, sustained uncertainty is deeply troubling, affecting their basic sense of security in a safe, healthy, cooperative world. Children are affected by adults who feel uncertain, and that may lead to behaviour issues at a time when parents feel least able to support and protect their emotional well-being.
Add to this, the struggles children of all ages have with changes –not seeing friends or family, not being able to go to their favourite playgrounds or parks, missing out on vacations, missing their normal activities and the people at them, far more time with a wider variety of ages than they are accustomed to, less privacy than they’re used to, having far more instruction from teachers than they’re used to, not having the kind of assistance they get at school …

What Helps
Here is a list of things that may help parents and kids with all the things:

Empathy and Compassion
Everyone is struggling. The struggle is real. The more empathy and compassionate understanding parents can bring to the table, the safer and more emotionally supported everyone will feel, even with uncertainty, including the parents. Get better at communicating effectively.

Alternative Work Hours
If you have to live like farmers or ranchers, with all the kids and adults around the place all day and night for months on end, it helps to think of ‘work time’ the way people who live where they have always worked do: lengthen the idea of ‘working hours’ to ‘from sunup to sundown,’ and build in many, many, many more breaks throughout the day.

Pomodoro is a great technique for timing work periods and frequent breaks, which is more suited to the sixteen or so waking hours, when kids might need something very frequently. Include in the ‘work periods’ all the things that are work: household chores, helping with homework, meal prep, zoom meetings that are not strictly social. Include as breaks anything that isn’t work: bathing, jogging or walking, eating, resting, playing a game, personal care, meditation, exercise, staring at the trees, having a cup of tea (or a glass of wine, or whatever.)

There are many things to do, and many things to get done, but relentless response to endless demands to work at all times is unsustainable. Creating breaks from 2 minutes to half an hour, and resting and rejuvenating yourself throughout the day will result in more productivity, more ease, more energy by the end of the day, and a more humane pace for adults and children to live. If it helps, make a list of ideas for ‘breaks’ if you’re short of creativity at the moment (check out this article for some ideas: 

Consider the Manners
Consideration for others is extremely important in tense situations, especially situations that drag on and on. Think about the impact you’re having on others, and be honest about the impact others are having on you. It is not too much to ask for others to eat more mindfully (and quietly), to be more aware of the noise they’re making, to be more aware of the space they’re taking up, and the focus they’re interrupting.

It is also not too much to ask that adults consider children’s energy, activities and focus with the same respect as they regard their children’s needs.

Goals Get You Closer someone brilliantly said, ‘there’s no fun in climbing all the way to the top of the ladder only to find it leaning against the wrong wall.’ If you don’t know what your goals are, you are very likely not to make them, however iffy reaching them intentionally might be. 

That is: if you get in your car in Calgary and just drive without a map or GPS, and no idea at all where you’re trying to get to, you may get to the end of a road somewhere, possibly in the middle of an empty prairie or up against a mountainside, but it’s unlikely to be a destination on your bucket list.

Family goals might include:

          I want us to all be respectful and kind to each other.

          I want you to be friends as adults, so you need to practice being kind now.

I want you to grow up knowing that your perspective and emotions are important to me, so we will make room for all the voices in the house.

I want us to work together as a team, building each other up rather than tearing each other down.

I want our home life to be peaceful and respectful.

I want them to grow up knowing that the answer, at our house, was usually ‘yes.’

That last one is mine. The others are past and current client’s family goals, and ideas I’ve read elsewhere. Yours will, of course, be yours, but never thinking about it is putting your ladder up against any old wall, or driving down any old road. . .

Children will not spontaneously create United Nations-level negotiation skills, nor create empathetic listening and communication skills out of the air. They need loving guidance as they learn to navigate the complicated world of competing (and sometimes mutually-exclusive) needs in groups of people beyond themselves.

This means the adults in the building need to demonstrate:

               ~ communication skills that aren’t ‘I’m louder than you so shut up’
               ~ negotiation skills that aren’t ‘I’m bigger and stronger than you, so I get                    my way’
               ~ working together to achieve a shared goal that isn’t ‘because I said so’
               ~ being the kind of communicator, negotiator, team player they hope                          their child will be

Kids learn almost all of the complex social stuff from watching how other people behave. If you’re currently struggling to be a good example of how to handle uncertainty, shared space, competing needs, and big feelings, you can be fairly sure your children will adopt how you do it, not how you talk about it.

Ask for Help, Do What You Can to Help is help of all kinds available all over, and (thank you, Alfie Kohn, and the brilliant book No Contest, the case against competition) cooperation is the nature of humanity: we all need other people, even the introverts who prefer relationships to be deep, close and few at a time. People feel good about themselves when they help their friends and loved ones in ways that really matter.

Don’t be stingy with your friends: let them feel great about themselves by asking directly. Give options, if ‘can you bring me a Starbucks’ sounds too forward or demanding: hey, I’d love a drive-by coffee date, can you bring one from home or a coffee shop, or I’ll just make my own and wave at you from my windows… I’d love to see you!

Reach out and help others.

Yes, yes, yes, we’re all terribly busy and important and have far too much on our plates already, how are we supposed to cram in helping others, too?

By emptying some of our plates onto others' (see paragraph starting with ‘don’t,’ above.) Also, by not doing some of it at all. Just because it’s on your plate doesn’t mean you’re required to shove it into your life.
It is your life. If you don’t ever want to bake cookies (or clean up the cookie-baking mess) with your kids ever again, don’t. You will not get the Bad Dad Prize of the Century for choosing activities that you also enjoy and drop the ones you actually hate. 

Nobody likes the smell of martyrs and they are very difficult to live with, especially in lockdown. Just stop.

And when you have all that lovely time and energy left to do something you feel is valuable and important in the world (and you’re buying your cookies from specialty bakers or the extra-value shelf at the grocery store, or not at all), select a ‘for someone else’ activity and do it.

Take a coffee to a busy friend. Ninja your parents with something they’d love –from handmade kid art to fancy tea or a new book. Ask your neighbour if you can pick up some groceries because you’re going anyhow. Check your neighbourhood facebook page for requests and pick something you would enjoy doing anyhow, and do it. Volunteer somewhere people are needed: a grocery store to pick orders for people who can’t get to the store, or the food bank, or to drive for medical appointments, or cleaning the school or, really, whatever you can think of. Call someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Zoom someone lonely who doesn’t have kids at home, and just let them watch your busy, noisy house for a while. Send a card to someone you’re thinking of. Paint a portrait of a friend’s cat. Drive by a friend’s place and wave, or chat on the phone while you look at each other through the windows…

There are billions of ways to help. Pick one.

If You’re Still Struggling

You are not alone. There is help. Reach out. Be kind to yourself, and know that you deserve kindness, care, tenderness and soothing. Yes, even you.

Yes, you, too

Call the Need Crisis Line, reach out online in a therapy group, find out what your benefits cover and access it: therapy, counselling or written or online resources.

Or talk to a parenting coach who can help you figure out your goals, help you lead your family toward them, improve your relationships and connections, and build your (and your kids’) communication and negotiation skills on the way… my booking calendar is here:

Saturday, 18 April 2020

7 Tips for Older Children's Meltdowns

A regular feature of chats with parents is the issue of temper tantrums . . . especially when the kids are past the age when parents (and our society) think kids are 'too old' for them.

No one is ever too old for a temper tantrum.

What is happening, during a meltdown / temper tantrum is largely physiological and almost entirely outside of the person's direct control. In brain science, the term is 'amygdala hijack.'

Basically, the higher (newer, more evolved, more conscious, call them anything you'd like) brain parts are offline: the body/mind has been overwhelmed by something (or an entire backpack of somethings, all piled on top of one another all day, or all month) and now the survival centres are in charge.

Once the survival centres are convinced that dumb monkey brain that rides it has lost the plot, the only options left are attack, runaway, or hide, also known as the fight-flight-flee response. 

To be clear: the flight-flight-freeze response is automatic

No one ever elects to freak out, meltdown, or otherwise come completely unglued and out of control. No, really. Not even 'to get their own way.'

This response is biological, and whatever depletes the newer brain parts of options and resources will eventually push anyone into fight-flight-flee. A temper tantrum is 'fight.'

While it is sometimes possible to get a toddler to back down, because fighting is just too dangerous around big, scary adults, often an older child doesn't feel so threatened, so instead of running or freezing, they ... well, the list is long:
  • destroy the newly-planted gardens, throwing plant pots, tools and transplants all over the yard
  • cut up the flower girl dress they're wearing tomorrow in their aunt's wedding
  • throw an armchair through the living room window
  • tear everything out of their backpack and smash it, tear it, and throw it around the room . . .et cetera . . .
So... then what?

Not super-helpful to just describe the problem, I know. Here:

First and foremost, let's try to simply avoid them (not always possible, but easier than dealing with them) . . .
  1. Please become aware of the use of the word 'interrupting' as it applies to children engaged in their activities. It's an uncommon use of the word, because 'what they're doing can't possibly be important.' And that's true, except it's missing the end of the sentence. Before the period, insert 'to you.' It is absolutely important 'to them.' When possible, watch them and wait for a change in their energy and focus (they'll often look around, or fidget more, lean back, stop running around) before suggesting a change of activity
  2. It takes a hundred million years, and is super-exhausting and difficult to do, but it helps reduce your frustration and their resistance when you get their attention gently and respectfully before engaging them in something you want them to do, or to stop them from what they want to do. Rather than shouting at them (usually repeatedly) walk to where they are, get your face at the same level as their face, touch them gently and say their name quietly. . . wait until they make eye contact, then speak
  3. Don't ask questions you don't want answers to, like 'do you want to go to bed now' or 'do you want to stop playing that and come and do my chores for me now?' If you won't accept no for an answer, don't phrase it in the form of a question with a yes/no response
  4. Respect their basic physiological needs. When they're hungry, feed them. When they're thirsty, give them a drink. When they're fidgety, exercise them. When they're tired or overstimulated, rest them. Don't ask questions about this unless you genuinely do not know if they are or are not in need of something, like food. Offer the solution, and don't make a fuss about it. Don't nag them to eat more or less, or sleep more or less. They won't learn to manage their bodies by being bossed around for 20 years and then flung into adulthood, unfamiliar. Depleted bodies have depleted brains, and the more depleted people become, the more likely their amygdala will take charge

There, wasn't that fun and easy? Well, easier than trying to stop a strong and fast young body that's freaking out . . . which brings me to this:

It's Easier to Avoid than Handle, but Sometimes You Get to Handle the Meltdown Anyhow

When you have to, you have to. It may be tempting (and we may have a background of experience from our own childhoods) to shout them down or force them to 'quit it,' but all that does is push the problem further into the future. Future you will not be happier when they're bigger and stronger than you and really snap when you can no longer force them to pretend they're fine.

So, the second list, is what to do instead . . . 
  1. Allow the child to have emotions about what's happening around them and to them, because fighting their body/mind response is a waste of your time, and only makes them feel worse, often amplifying and extending the outburst to epic (see above) proportions. Children are allowed to mind being bossed around, having their choices taken away, and being interrupted. Compliance is not a normal human attribute and they didn't sign the 'be obedient' contract, same as the rest of us; their emotional responses to things are real --and outside their control. Wait, if you can, before saying or doing anything, as more stimulation (words, touch) is often just 'more' for an already overwhelmed body/mind
  2. Recognize and acknowledge their feelings, since they're real anyhow and there's no way to stop that reality, make it so they don't have to get louder (in words or actions; see, again: above) to feel that they've accurately conveyed the strength of their feelings (eg. 'You sound FURIOUS about having the to get out of the pool because you were enjoying swimming and needed to feel control over your activities.') You will not be able to convince them that they have been heard and understood with inaccurate words like 'don't like' or 'upset' --and don't be afraid to overshoot the intensity. Kids' feelings are adult-size and don't fit into their little bodies; they feel them at very high intensity, not mildly. Oh, one very big P.S. Don't explain, justify, argue or defend what you've just said in the hopes that it will minimize or eradicate their emotions --those make it a whole lot worse, not better
  3. If it becomes necessary, hold the child so it's impossible for them to hurt themselves or anyone else (when they're bigger and stronger, it can help to keep your back against something firm like a wall, and pin their arms with one arm, their legs with one leg, and their head with the other arm --to avoid headbutting and biting.) 
When our little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it's our job to share our calm, not join their chaos. 
~ L.R. Knost, author The Gentle Parent