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.