I have 13 amazing grandchildren. Each is unique and special in his/her own way. And each one has his/her own specific life challenges, as we all do. The wonderful thing for me is that I get to have them visit from time to time. I love them and I learn from them some pretty significant life lessons.
This past week, I had the privilege of spending a week with two of them. Thomas and his sister couldn’t be more different. She is 9, joyfully bossy and confident, entertaining us with a running commentary of everything that is happening along the way, singing the words to every song that comes on the radio, reporting the happenings of the day from what’s for dinner to who farted. She’s quick, loves to read and almost beat me at scrabble.
Thomas, 11, on the other hand, is generally quieter and reserved, tactically sensitive, overwhelmed by chaos, somewhat uncomfortable with social situations and has difficulty with eye contact and direct questions. Needing more transition time between activities, he feels things very deeply. He also is happy to respond to his sister’s comments and sing along to the songs on the radio. He loves electricity and figuring out how things work. He’s the one who like to turn the waterfall on at the pool and prefers being busily engaged with a task like scrubbing the sides of the pool, carrying my chair for me, or just curiously looking around in drawers and cupboards.
In the past, he has struggled significantly with reactivity, anger, frustration and defiance because of stimulation overwhelm. However, over the past few years, he has been working diligently (with the help of very loving parents) to implement healthy coping mechanisms to lessen his stress levels, enhance his relationships, strengthen his sense of self and improve his overall well-being, making him much more productive in speaking his mind in an effective way, and getting what he wants: a happy, successful life.
As I watch what’s happening in the news with the reactivity of adults who don’t know how to discern the real from the “fake” and the intelligent from the “mob mentality,” I think of how well Thomas functions in being thoughtfully responsive, kind and helpful, not allowing his frustration to turn into hatred and anger, and refraining from letting overstimulation drive him to reactivity.
So I thought I’d share a few observations about how a boy with little life experience and childhood coping mechanisms has learned to act in a way that allows life to respond to him with positive energy and hope of fulfillment and productivity.
1. Deep breaths. He has learned to breathe and detach from the stressors before he responds.
2. He recognizes his triggers and makes a plan. At McDonald’s indoor playground, he says, “It’s pretty crazy in here. I think I can handle it for about 30 minutes, but then, can we leave?”
3. He walks outside. He knows fresh air is calming.
4. As he walks in the woods, sometimes, he yells, just to make noise and release the toxins that are gathering inside of him from tension. (As an adult, talking, laughing, or yelling into a pillow also serve the same purpose.)
5. He responds with kindness as often as he can.
6. He happily responds to requests for help, with “Sure,” rather that seeing those requests as interruptions.
7.He looks for tasks with which to busy himself, which helps release stress and relieves anxiety about being in social situations.
8. He (or an adult) gives himself several minutes warning that he will need to move on to another activity. (In 10 minutes, we have to leave. At the commercial, we will have lunch.) You can do this for yourself. (I will read one more chapter before I move to the next task. I will finish writing this report, then leave for the day.)
9. He goes to a quiet place of his choosing to chill.
10. He spends time creating (imagining stories or painting or reading) which gives him a break from the everyday stressors.
These coping mechanisms make him a kind, compassionate, responsive and productive kid. It takes work. Yes, it’s a struggle. No he’s not happy with everything that goes on around him. No he doesn’t agree with everyone all the time, but he doesn’t need to agree to be kind and considerate. Yes, life seems overwhelming for him often, but he is learning how to handle the stressors with skill and grace. You probably know some adults that could use these skills.
He sees the news sometimes; he sees the thoughtless, crazy, angry way many adults are coping (or not). When I asked him what his best advice is for grown ups who struggle like he does, he said, “Breathe…”
That’s my boy.