December 18, 2020
For so many of my teaching years, I can remember thinking, over and again, ‘I wish I could get inside that kids brain for 5 minutes.’ Knowing what my students were thinking, I felt, might miraculously help me to resolve a crisis.
So often did I think this that, at times, I would find myself searching the eyes of the troubled boy or girl for that, Star Trek-like mind-meld. It’s funny to believe we might actually have a clue as to how anxiety is impacting a child internally, when they can’t verbalize it to us. But we don’t. Only when (and until) we can walk in the same shoes or sit in the same wheelchair as these kids can we know.
Yes, we have our intuitions; and they are informative. Familiarity is also helpful to formulate an educated guess. But like these, or anything else we can think up, they cannot provide us with exactly how anxiety is translating within a child. Imagine having never felt ice cold water but believing you can explain the sensation one feels when it touches the skin because you’ve seen how people react to it. It’s not possible.
About six years ago, after some previous experiences with my own non-debilitating anxiety, I came face to face with what can only be described as my personal Tsunami; a degree of leveling anxiety that tore my roof off and uprooted my foundation. Without going into too many details, this experience forced me to look at myself, and the human condition, from a place that I DID NOT know existed previously. There is no way in this world that anyone who has never gone through this can imagine what I was feeling. No intuition can inform. No familiarity can lend insight. No shoes can duplicate it…No way.
I can recall, during one horrific moment, staring at myself in the mirror and thinking, ‘Wow. Look what can happen to a human being.’ I can remember fighting the truth that this was real. I kept thinking, ‘This is NOT me. This is NOT my story.’
However, in the same moment, it was as if I were observing a stranger. This advantage enabled me to pay attention and take mental notes as to what was happening for this person who looked like me. Upon reflection, what was more significant, was that I could feel what he was feeling, because, it was me…I was in my brain!
I have learned to embrace this nightmare. It was a moment in time; in my life. It didn’t define me but it was a part of me. In time it would help to shape how I looked at the world; my perspectives on so many things, changed forever. In time, I would realize the gifts it bestowed upon me; my increased levels of patience for other’s behaviors, my growing compassion for those struggling and my fresh insights into what it means to be a human being in a communal world. Collectively, these resulted in a reprioritization of what was important; my ideas, my beliefs, my focus and my direction. It made me want to become the best me I could be. And, along with a self-determination to heal and grow from this experience, Prozac helped, too!
This happened to me in August. Three weeks later I was to begin a new school year with a new group of students. In that class was a 15 year old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. The previous school year he had developed a tendency for physical outbursts directed at both
his teachers and peers. This is not uncommon but it is a challenging task to come up with a solution for. When a person has a tantrum or an outburst, something has preceded it or triggered it’s occurrence. Triggers are observable over time and when they are identified, caregivers can put into place a behavior management plan to facilitate a response and attempt to mitigate or de-escalate meltdowns.
I have created or co-created, many behavior plans over the years; it became a real interest of mine and I enjoyed the process of discovering triggers and actualizing plans. But having identified a trigger only gives some insight; a place to begin. What it does not do is allow you to know what that anxiety feels like for a child who has lost his ability to control himself.
From the moment I re-entered the teaching arena, that first day, I felt completely different. I had already felt a new depth of compassion for others taking root within me and upon meeting the students, I knew that I was going to be a different kind of teacher. I had been preparing for the challenge of meeting (let’s call him, Trevor). When he entered my life, he did so in a hurry. His inertia level was an 8 and he moved about with determination and purpose. His first interest, always, was the schedule for each day. He would want, and insist upon, constant updates as to what was, ‘next.’
The old me would have used a more formulaic approach with Trevor. However, the new me felt something different almost immediately. Within days, as things settled in and a routine could be established, I noticed a greater degree in my own level of sensitivity to anytime Trevor would become upset. It didn’t take long for me to realize, “I know what’s happening for him. I know something has taken hold inside of him that is incredibly uncomfortable and he can’t express it except to act out. ‘
Of course, anxiety manifests within each of us in different ways. Just because I knew how it affected my body, didn’t mean I knew how it affected his. But what I did know, was that a physical reaction that I could not see, was more than likely tearing at him.
And because I knew this, I was now able to be more mindful of my reactions and interactions. I now knew enough to allow myself to pause, create space for him, and, decide how I would respond and ultimately comfort him. Between stimulus and response is the space to choose our response. -Viktor Frankel
Now, I am not wishing upon anyone the traumas in life that, although undesirable, can offer new insights. My hope is to inspire those who don’t travel these life altering paths, by expressing mine. I wish for you a gentler enlightenment.
Unlike dealing with a stranger, with our children we have insight. We can limit upset by identifying triggers. We can prepare for outbursts by being ready with emergency sensory kits (see Communal Sharing page), schedules, social stories and management plans
(reward systems, etc. ). And when it comes to our approach when confronted with outbursts, we can learn to allow for the fact that there is a lot more happening internally for our anxious child than his outward behaviors may indicate. And then we can look first to compassion rather than losing our cool.
By giving space for your child to breathe and safely express his upset, we allow ourselves the time to choose our responses. And these responses can then comfort instead of scold. They can give space for conversation or silent recognition. Sometimes the best words are no words at all. Create an atmosphere and, if you can, an area where your child can self sooth while you support, with recognition of the struggle.
What I became good at was remaining calm in the face of a meltdown. I had this tendency already but it was now magnified and internalized so as to become second nature. I was
aware of the patience I needed from the people in my life who I leaned on. As a result, I knew that I had to find that patience for my kids who counted on me.
When it was time for our annual school trip to see a Broadway show in Manhattan, I, along with Trevor’s Autism 1:1 specialist, had been preparing him to go. He had agreed he wanted to participate, but in the weeks leading up to the day, his anxiety grew. He would say, “What if it rains that day? Then we can’t go.” I assured him that even if it did rain the trip would proceed and that he would be ok. He would say, ok, but continued to repeat the scenario daily.
When the day arrived, Trevor entered the classroom with a vacant look in his eyes. His body was present but his mind was far away. Our bus wasn’t leaving until 11:00, which was potentially problematic, so I kept to our morning routine so as to limit the impact of the changes that were to come. Upon completing a writing task, Trevor showed me his work. I was seated as he stood over me. Typically, when something needed to be rewritten we followed an established regimen. I asked Trevor if he could just change a small section. When he said, “No. It’s fine,” I asked him to try anyway because we still had plenty of time before the trip.
In the past, if what transpired next had happened, my reaction might have been different. I might have raised my voice and said, ‘NO!’ I may have even taken it personally; which has no place in these dealings. But when, in an instant of complete reactive response to my request, Trevor leveled a blow to my left ear with his open hand, I sat in shock for a second or two. It hurt but I didn’t get upset. I could see what this act had done to him. He immediately, and desperately, began pleading that he was sorry. I understood that he had not intended, and had no control over, this physical outburst.
I stood, took his hand and told him that we needed to take a walk. As he walked, he settled. When we stopped, he calmly said, “Maybe no trip;” referring to a possible consequence for his actions. This made me laugh because he was so smart as to think this was his golden ticket out. I told him we were going anyway. And we did. And he did great!
The moment I took between his action and my response, allowed me to choose my response based on a sensitivity to the internal workings of anxiety within Trevor. And that is what I want to leave you with. Even if we can’t know the inner physical manifestations that are driving the external behaviors of our children, we can acknowledge that we don’t know and drop our expectations or preconceived ideas. It is about that moment. And, how we choose to respond to an outburst, meltdown, acting out, etc., is critical to the growth and development of our children… and ourselves.
Peace and Keep Rising
*A note on anxiety. I am not a specialist but I have lived it. It is nothing to be ashamed of. It is more common than you may think. I encourage you to own it and live your life. Also, the stigma of medication is over. If something is going to help you live a happy and fulfilled life, do it. How you live is up to you and medication may or may not be necessary. Alternative solutions exist and many support services are available. I encourage you to research and seek out what works for you. Purpose, exercise, smart nutritional choices and a healthy lifestyle helped me.
My hope is that this epidemic is more strongly considered by those with the power and resources to affect change. I can only hope for a societal paradigm shift that will improve understanding and allow for more open discussion, without feeling boxed-in, to spark a reduction in the number of people who experience it. The best advice given to me, by Flo Rosof, Ph.D., which has become my mantra is, ‘Go with the flow.’ The physical sensations we are experiencing as a result of our anxiety are real, but they are typically brought on by the anxiety itself and they won’t harm us. I have found that by allowing these feelings to exist as I move with and through them, takes away their power and their hold. J