16 March 2016

The Perils of Thinking Straight

When Thinking Straight is exhausting, downtime helps

"Thinking straight" is hard work for some kids - just getting through an average day is a feat of endurance and nuclear meltdowns can occur with worrying frequency. You might know someone like this (it might be your kid) and you are baffled as to why, for no apparent reason, they seem to melt down on a regular basis.

I'm writing this post to clue you in dear readers: mums, teachers, friends of people with kids like mine. I'm reminding us all that for kids whose brains are a bit quirky (like those with dyslexia or ADHD), thinking straight is hard work.

What I mean is, ordering your thoughts, sequencing your actions, forcing your jumping-about, big-picture brain to work in a straight, ordered line, day after day, hour after hour is flippin exhausting.
The daily routine of getting up, getting dressed and ready, getting out the door on time EVERY DAY is like running a marathon every single day, with no end in sight.

Always running to catch up

Sitting down concentrating, following rules, listening without moving, taking in information in a linear way at school all day long - exhausting. (Not to mention frustrating and often demoralising).
Then after a long tiring day at school, there's coming home, racing off to scheduled activities with no down-time, forcing your brain to concentrate just a bit longer to complete homework in that linear way (or face the consequences), and then get into bed on time and hope your brain will switch off soon so you can sleep???!!

And then to know that tomorrow you have to get up and do it all again. Every. Day. Week after week. Month after month.

It feels like a prison sentence.

Which is why sometimes out of "nowhere" my kids spazz off. They lose it. They melt down, often without even knowing why.

Selfies found on my phone

The smallest disappointment ("we aren't going straight home, sorry, we have to go buy school shoes") can elicit a wail of such pain and fury, you'd think someone was being murdered.

Getting through each day for a non-linear person in a linear world is exhausting. It's exhausting trying to understand and make sense of things in a language that is not yours. Act like a square when you're a circle. Sit still when your body buzzes with fizzy energy. Listen to long explanations when your thoughts jump all over the place and send you off on tangents. Be on time when time passes in your world at a different rate, as if you were in Narnia.

On Narnia-time, you lose a sense of time passing as you get lost in your thoughts or games, but lateness gets you in trouble in this linear world of clocks. As does talking in class, running in corridors, swinging in doorframes, wriggling on the mat and daydreaming.

No wonder emotions simmer so close to the surface, trying to keep yourself in line every minute.
And sometimes the pressure of "keeping it together" gets too much and emotions splurt out, like a fizzy pop bottle all shook up.
When these volcanic emotions blow, they can blow up BIG.

Hilarity with a yoda mask

It helps understanding why, at least.
I know why. See, I'm not immune to them, myself. I "get" this, because I am the same way.

So the other night when one of my kids was wailing and crying and shouting and carrying on:
I don't wanna make my lunch box! I have to do it every day! And get ready! And go to bed! And I've had no time to relax! And then I have to go to sleep and get up and get dressed and race to school and be on time and I don't want to! at first I was just annoyed because it was bedtime and they were making a fuss.

Then the realisation dawned on me that this is a "sequencing" thing. This kid is overwhelmed by the weight of all that structure, all that holding themselves in line. It feels big and heavy and oppressive with no end in sight. I know that feeling. I get like that when there is too much planned in.

I put that feeling into words for my kid, and asked, is this how it feels?

YES! That was it. Every day, doing the same thing, having to be onto it, all the time, and always doing the right thing. Poor kid (I feel your pain, honest).
All of a sudden it was easy to be sympathetic, to let them know they were understood. As soon as that happened the fight went out of them and they snuggled down, reassured.
That's all it took.
Pondering this, I realised that most of the explosions we've been having lately have been caused by the same thing. Each one of the kids, in turn. It happens more often the further into the term we get. Energy runs low and emotions run high.

Quirky kids need plenty of space to unwind

What can I do to help my kids with this? (They're all this way, every single one).

1. I can recognise the signs, early, and I can take steps to relieve the pressure.
For example, when my eldest started high school this year, I noticed that the biggest load of homework he had was French. It was a compulsory subject (everyone in Year 9 learns a language) with the biggest workload, but he couldn't see the point in learning it. I personally loved French at school, but I knew this would never be something he'd pursue or enjoy. I watched closely and observed the signs of pressure building. Without saying anything to him, I made an appointment to see the Dean and head of Learning Support. I took in his documentation  from Starship (re ADHD) and I asked if he could drop French so he could have more time to work on subjects he will actually benefit from (let's be honest. French is never gonna be his thing). They said yes, no problem. Now when French is scheduled, he takes any classwork/homework he needs help with to the learning centre and gets valuable assistance - and valuable extra time. He is managing the rest of his homework brilliantly and we are no longer at Defcon 1. Crisis averted. *pats self on back*

a break in routine does us all good

2. I can give them a break in routine to catch their breath.
"Mental health days" they are called, and they are very important! Around here I give the kids a mental health day when I notice them getting scratchy and overwhelmed, usually about once a term. I make no apology for it - this is a safety valve. A pressure-release to help relieve stress build-up. In smaller ways I can help break the routine by making their lunchbox for them (my kids make their own, the night before) or give them a ride to school so they don't have to be out the door so early. Or clean their room for them (they do their own, usually). Something to relieve the sameness and relentlessness of the daily grind, so they can catch their breath a bit.

3. I don't overschedule.
For years we have had a policy of "one activity each" when it comes to extracurricular stuff. As they get older their "one thing" often involves multiple days for training and lot of time with me playing taxi-driver, so I'd hate to see what more than one activity each looks like in a family with three kids! Dash has football (academy, plus training, plus game day) and Fab has cheerleading (two training days per week plus comps). Scrag has rugby in winter (one training plus game day). It's enough!
My kids need lots of downtime, where there's nowhere they have to be. Just hanging out, relaxing.

Understanding what they are feeling helps a lot

I spotted this article about Simplifying childhood on Facebook yesterday, and it resonated deeply with me.
"...we recreate regular down time providing a sense of calm and solace in their otherwise chaotic worlds. It provides a release of tension children know they can rely on and allows children to recover and grow, serving a vital purpose in child development. We filter unnecessary busyness and simplify their lives. We don't talk about global warming at the dinner table with a seven year old. We watch the news after our kids are asleep. We remove excessive toys and games from our toddler's room when they're sleeping. We recreate and honour childhood." -- from Simplifying childhood on Huffington Post
There are some things we just can't change about what our picture-brained kids have to contend with, because this is the world we live in. It's a linear-oriented world, and a linear-oriented education system. Tick tock, goes the clock!

But we can streamline and pare back the extra things. Make sure there's plenty of downtime, green spaces and gaps in the schedule for us all to catch our breath.

Does any of this resonate with you? Do you have a child who "melts down" for no apparent reason? Thoughts, anyone?

Dyslexic Brains are Good Brains Too
Detours, Road Blocks & Getting there Eventually
The Upside of Imperfection
This is Normal, Apparently
Confessions of a Lazy Mother

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