Thursday, April 2, 2015

Coming Soon: Managing Kids' Expectations

Every year, I get a reliable laugh out of my cardiology appointment. An ultrasound is part of it. They get me in there, I conquer the task of putting on that weird robe that somehow seems to have three arm holes, I lie down, and right before they put this ultrasound scanner against my chest, they warn me, “This gel may be cold.”

Lord have mercy! Not cold gel!  Because that would be way worse than other things they’ve done to me at that hospital, like slicing me wide open and taking babies out of me. I have to laugh.

What they’re trying to do, though, has a point. It’s generally easier to get through tough things when you know what to expect. That’s even truer for kids.  Because of their emotional immaturity, they can fly apart at all kinds of situations.  If you know your kid and trust that feeling in the pit of your stomach, you can often tell ahead of time what the pitfall might be.  Managing their expectations with a three-part process goes a long way to help head off trouble:

1)  Tell them that something tough will or may happen. This could be all kinds of things. It could be something obvious that most kids dislike, like a shot. It could also be something particular to your child, for example, the likelihood of losing a game against older kids for a competitive child. It could be a change in routine if your child gets thrown by changes.  Let your kid know that this situation may cause some discomfort.

2)  Explain why this tough thing has to happen and anything you’ve done to mitigate it.  For example, why the routine has to change that day, or how the older kids are going to be supportive of you as you are learning the new game. It helps if the suffering isn’t pointless and if people are trying to make it as tolerable as possible.

3)  Give them a mental script to respond to the tough situation. Kids typically lack the wisdom and experience to roll with the punches.   They need parents to coach them in self-talk before situations that are tough for them.  For example, the competitive kid could be coached ahead of time to think, “My goal today is just to learn the rules of this new game. I’ll probably lose and that’s ok.”  An inflexible child could be coached to think, “I’m disappointed, but I can handle this change in our plans.” Even if it’s not true (yet), you’re helping put a wise voice in your kids’ heads so they can develop this ability over time.

Usually just talking through these steps is sufficient. For big-deal situations or kids who really struggle with expectations, take a cue from the autism community and put it in writing (google “social stories, Carol Gray” for more on this).  For example, before surgery, or before starting a new school that the child is nervous about, reading and re-reading a paragraph about what will (or may) happen, and how to think positively about it, really helps.

Next time I see the Cold Gel guy, I hope he’ll do a more thorough job of managing my expectations. He will not only tell me the gel may be cold. He will also tell me I need this ultrasound to help my heart and that he warmed the gel up as much as he could.  He’ll tell me that I can handle the cold gel for the sake of my heart. 

I think I feel calmer already.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Get Used to Disappointment

Like all geeks everywhere, I love the movie The Princess Bride. There’s a scene in it where the master swordsman Inigo Montoya is fighting the mysterious Man in Black. Montoya just can’t believe how good this mystery man is and curiosity consumes him.  The following conversation ensues as their blades clash in an amazing virtuoso display:

Inigo Montoya: Who are you?
Man in Black: No one of consequence.
Inigo Montoya: I must know . . .
Man in Black: Get used to disappointment.
Inigo Montoya:  (shrugs) Okay.

I love to think about this related to kids, because teaching them that they can handle disappointment is one of best gifts we can give them.   Kids are definitely not born with this ability. Babies cry insistently because they actually can’t survive being disappointed of their simple eating and sleeping needs. Toddlers and preschoolers are even worse because their expectations are higher. The disappointment of not having the right shape of chicken nugget, or the trauma of having a corner broken off the NutriGrain bar might kill them.  The result of disappointment is a tantrum.  Learning not to have tantrums is partly learning better ways to get what you want, but mostly a lifelong “get used to disappointment” process.

I got a glimpse into how this works this past summer. We were at the lake with a big group of extended family. One morning, my brother, sister and a couple of cousins decided to canoe over to Diver’s Rock, the site of fondly remembered yet perhaps ill-advised adolescent jumping adventures. Kid 5 wanted to come along. In my normal foggy-headed way, I guess I didn’t really think this through:   that everyone would revisit their childhoods and actually jump off this thing. But there we were with an intrepid four-foot-high girl, with inadequate footwear, who really wanted to race down this slanting rock face and launch at the perfect moment like her parents and aunts and uncles and teen cousins and – I was not okay with it. I could feel my cousin, who is still parenting toddlers, tensing up next to me. I could feel the “walking on eggshells” feeling still inside me as well, carrying over from ancient days, plus simple sadness at how she was going to feel.  But after explaining why she couldn’t jump this year, I just said, “You can handle disappointment.”  And miracle of miracles, she didn’t fly apart. She even rationalized, “I guess I didn’t even know we were going to a place we could jump until just now.”  She put her disappointment into perspective for herself. 

“You can handle disappointment” is something we parents need to say to and believe about our kids. Kids are not made of glass. When their problem-solving fails . . .when they don’t get their way. . . their emotions won’t kill them. They may never really “get used to disappointment,” but with coaching, modeling, and practice in the school of hard knocks, they can learn to shrug and say, “Okay.” That’s the gift of resiliency we can give our kids for life. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

When Kids Pass You By

There comes a time in every parent’s life when you realize that your kid is better than you.
I can clearly remember the first time one of my kids started beating me at board games.  And I’m not talking Candyland either. I’m talking about games with actual strategy. It’s gotten to where I expect to lose. It works out for everybody because I seldom cry or quit when I’m losing. I’m pretty sure my kid is smarter than me. (Than I, as that kid would probably say).

Or how about faster and stronger?  That’s another one that’s certainly long gone.  Off I go, lifting weights and running three days a week, and yet all the kids are pretty much better than me. I can still beat the former preemies at arm wrestling, but that’s about it. The kids I used to have to agonizingly wait for on our walks now run straight out of my sight and forever to the horizon.  Even our couch potato kid managed, in just ten weeks of gym class, to run at a pace I’ve been trying to achieve for three years.  I know for a fact that the kids are stronger and faster than me.

Do we even need to talk about technological superiority? Not even a question there. We all know who is going to set up the wireless network, fix the computer, and hook up the TV, right?  Not only are the kids better than us, we can barely even understand them. That’s not because we’re proud Luddites either. We’re trying, and we actually can’t understand them. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’re a trial to them when we repeatedly mix up “microprocessor” and “microcontroller.”

The kids’ superiority isn’t limited to the universal talents of the young, either.  We’ve known for more than a decade that one of the kids is far, far better at remembering what’s on the calendar than I am. There’s another who I’m pretty certain has more spiritual depth than I do.  Probably four of them write better, which is pretty much my wheelhouse, so what do you do with that?  Others are clearly kinder and even wiser.  One of the kids is practically Yoda and regulates the emotions of the entire household.   Then, just last week, I overheard a conversation where the kids were “sib-parenting,” correcting some behavior, and thought, “Dang, they’re better parents as well.” 

Having your kids pass you by has to be one of the greatest feelings in the world.  It makes me grateful that our kids don’t have to get all their qualities and talents from us. They draw from so many different people and experiences to become who they are. They also come into the world with unique qualities that I can only understand as gifts. When you look at your child and think, “They sure didn’t get that from me,” it’s humbling and amazing and gratitude-inducing all at once.  Take time to appreciate and savor the ways in which your kids are better than you.  Humanity depends on their surpassing us, after all.