Friday, April 15, 2016

The Good with the Bad

Most days with Joey are good days. He's happy. He feels safe at school. He likes to learn new things, and show off what he knows and can do (just ask him a math question...) He's discovered imagination and Star Wars and healthy eating. Let him script and do his thing, and he will skip through the day being Awesome and trying to bring you along in the Awesome. If feeling slightly off, he may script more, or turn to his favorite video game (which currently involves making cupcakes).

Then there are the bad days. Usually he's not feeling well- it can be hard to know when Joey is sick, or tired, or just grumpy, because he's working so hard to be happy and to please everybody and be perfect. When this fails in his own eyes, the spiral begins. He thought he was playing, and you mistook his action for something aggressive or inappropriate. He accidentally knocks something over or spills his water. He stubs a toe. He gets something wrong on an assignment. These little things become a straw upon the camel's back, and once it breaks, we have a Bad Day.

Joey has a lot of difficulty recovering from a Bad Day. He can't just let it go, calm down, or start over. He can't shrug it off and turn it around on his own. He needs help. Sometimes he just needs a nudge in the right direction in the right way. Sometimes he needs a lot of support and patience. Sadly, there is little knowing which it will be right this minute in the Bad Day, and if the spiral continues, we are headed for meltdown. It builds. The steam doesn't really release; those early signs of spiral are just more pressure. He knows this isn't going well. He doesn't know how to change it. He can't stop the spiral, either. The frustration of continuing to "do it wrong" bursts out as self-deprecation. Too often, this has turned out badly, very, very badly, and so he has now cut to the chase and started in himself, knowing from experience that this is a Bad Day, and there is nothing he can do about it now.

In the regular school, Bad Day meant write-ups, suspensions, punishments. Even if he was allowed to recover, after about 20 minutes- when he was outwardly looking better- he would be sent back into the frying pan; no one understood he needed much more time, that this was more like a seismic affair, complete with growing quakes and aftershocks. The blow-up is the center of the event, not the beginning- or the end.

Joey has internalized this criminalization of being overwhelmed, of being unable to recover without help, of spiraling without brakes. The frustration of it makes him more aggressive, in trying to get out the fear, the frustration, the explosive energy of the anxiety of I Did Something Wrong and Now They Will Hate Me. That aggression can turn into flight. Without flight, it becomes fight. Will be bite his arm? throw something? posture aggressively towards another person? There is no way to know how that fight will play out.

On those Good Days... the majority of days, when things are quiet, and Joey is humming along doing his thing and being himself and starting to store up those little irritations and straws up on his back... those days, he can do anything. He could move mountains and conquer the world. A flash of that grin and a high five and he melts all hearts.

It's on the Bad Days that he needs the support, the help, the extra time and patience. It is on these days that often Joey, and many like him, get exactly the opposite. Instead of understanding that this is just part of Joey (everybody has bad days, after all- you don't stop being their friend just because they are having a bad day, right?), he's treated as a broken thing. A you-aren't-Joey-today-what's-the-matter-with-you monster, instead of a kid having a bad day. If you were having a bad day, wouldn't you want your friends to cheer you up, maybe pop in your favorite movie, bring you some flowers or something? You certainly wouldn't want them to scream at you, tell you to leave, turn you away, or punish you. If that became the regular response to you having a bad day, you might start being self-deprecating, too. That's what happens to people who are emotionally abused, day in, day out, even by people who have no clue what they are doing or that they are doing it.

Recovering from this kind of grueling abuse is a long road, even when the exposure wasn't long at all- it doesn't take much to grind a child down. Several years of school is not a short time, and we are just beginning our road. I am grateful for his school, where people are understanding Joey and trying their best to help him, instead of just punishing him for having Bad Days- even a spate of them. This understanding and effort is the first step in teaching Joey how to cope with Bad Days, how to build a toolkit to respond to (and even prevent) getting overwhelmed, and giving him some brakes for the spiral. Without this first step, there is no way for him to understand, because he reads loud and clear that he is, as a person, Bad, since you are refusing to help him and are punishing him for being himself, and trying his best. When a child does their very best, and it isn't enough, you don't slap them.

You help them.

That is how they learn to be independent and confident in their growing skills.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Birthday Boy

Fourteen. Really. 

Yes, I got him a bike horn. It's like I'm new here. 

Happy Birthday, Joey!

He's fourteen now, people. 
Where did the time go?