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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Outside vs. Inside

Here's how it looked from the outside:

We were having a "Horrible Day," as Ella calls it when her brothers are having behavior issues. It was Saturday, and all three boys were supposed to be going to Aidan's counseling and then karate with Dad. Dad may have temporarily forgotten how long it takes to get the boys ready to get out the door, since they all have ADHD and can't focus long enough to tie a shoe most mornings. Dad may have expected the boys to rush like typically developing kids are capable of. Sometimes Mommy does the same thing, sometimes we forget our kids have special needs to the extent that they do. 

The boys were lalagagging. Dad and I were stressed because they were going to be late for therapy. The boys started having meltdowns. All three of them. Not easy to handle. In fact, it was total and complete chaos. If they start having meltdowns while you're trying to get them out the door, it's like the whole family is moving in quicksand- everything is a million times more difficult and takes a million times longer. 

So all three boys are freaking out, swearing, yelling, crashing chairs, whatever. Ella is doing her best to stay out of the way of the "Horrible Day." Alex and I were doing our best to stay calm and move the family along to the next step of the day, but we were failing. I was very emotional because sometimes I just can't believe that this is my family. That this is how the children that I have raised can act. Sometimes it just boggles my mind how our life can fall totally apart over something simple like trying to get karate uniforms on and head out the door on a Saturday morning. 

Finally, all the boys exited the house. I tried to repair Ella's fragile little world by spending some extra time with her. Alex dropped Aidan off at counseling and then came back home with Ben and Jonah. Ben had been having more of a meltdown because he didn't want to do karate all of a sudden, which made the rest of the family upset and disappointed for a couple reasons: We've paid for him to do this sport weekly. He said earlier in the morning that he did want to go to the class that day. It had taken moving heaven and earth to get him out the door with his brothers. 

Ben came in the house after Jonah and Dad. He took his boot off and whipped it across the kitchen as hard as he could, trying to take out something that would make a loud crash along the way. Then he did the same thing with the other one, all the while yelling at the top of his lungs. He smashed his coat onto the floor as hard as he could, and yelled some more. He and Dad had had a big fight on the way home. Big. Ben was in tears while he screamed, and Alex was visibly exhausted from the last hour of fighting with the boys. 

Ben went to the back closet and got my winter coat out. He put it on. He took my winter boots out and put his feet into them. Alex continued to try to convince Ben to do the karate class that morning but Ben kept yelling no, he was NOT going to do it, while tears dripped down his face. I asked him if he was angry because Daddy had hurt his feelings while they were fighting. He said yes, but that wasn't the only reason he was upset, he said. He said he was upset because Daddy had hurt MY feelings. (!) He burst into tears, opened the door and went outside into the cold and snow. 

Crazy, random behavior, right?

Here's how it looked from inside, if you know Ben deep into his heart the way I do:

Ben witnessed the family having some moments of chaos. He can't deal with chaos. The only way he can react to outward chaos is with his becoming chaotic and disorganized himself. This is why Alex and I do our best to limit the chaos in our home, for all the kids. Ben saw me upset, and I was upset because of the whole situation, not because anyone had hurt my feelings. Ben sometimes misinterprets situations, especially those involving emotional overload. Sweet Ben was hurt on my behalf, thinking my feelings had been hurt by Dad. He was lashing out at Dad because he thought somewhere in his subconscious that he needed to find a way to protect me and comfort me- which means he is capable of feeling enormous empathy for others, which means all our work is paying off.

[]'}"{Ben reacted aggressively toward Dad. Dad responded with being upset. Ben's feelings were hurt but instead of expressing his hurt, he emotes anger. As Ben stood in my coat and boots, I asked him if he was hurt more than angry. I could see he was, and wanted him to identify this feeling for himself, to sit with the uncomfortableness of hurt feelings and label that feeling correctly so that in the future there will be one more instance he can recall of having hurt feelings instead of just the global anger he has always felt and expressed. We've been working for years to get him to differentiate between his feelings, identify how he feels, and be aware of what situations trigger which feelings.  So he did say that yes, he was hurt, not really angry. 

But there was a layer to that hurt that neither Alex or I saw coming- the fact that he was hurt for me because he thought I was hurt. 

I know he put on my boots and coat for the same reason the boys wear Alex's clothes to bed when he's on a business trip: he wanted to be close to me. He wanted to comfort me, and also be comforted. He wanted to do all those things but at the same time couldn't verbally express that and didn't want physical contact. So he did what he instinctively knew how to do. He wrapped himself in the warmth of my things.

Ben also refused to go to karate. Instead he went out into the snow by himself. When he came back in the house, he put on his noise-blocking head phones and retrieved his blankie. He knew how to soothe himself!! This is HUGE!! He knew what would make him feel better, and he did it all by himself! Again, we've been working for years on self-soothing in therapy: what can Ben do to make himself calm down and feel better? He has had difficulty with this skill since the moment he took his first breath in this world, and has relied mainly on me to navigate his world with him, making it safe and comfortable for him since he can't make sense of it sometimes and is incapable of soothing himself. 

Just like any father, Alex wants to share experiences with his kids, and karate is an interest that they all have. When one of the boys doesn't want to participate in karate, it's disappointing because it's an activity that all the guys in our family can share and now someone will be missing. That Saturday, though, Ben was saying a few things with his statement of "No! I don't want to go to karate!" He was saying he felt he and Dad needed to have some space to cool off. He was saying he was too overwhelmed with his emotions to be able to handle karate that day. He was saying he knew how to take care of himself and needed to do the things he was doing. He needed to self-soothe. And we let him do that. 

Alex and I talked afterwards about how actually amazing the whole thing was for Ben, what an incredible milestone. I couldn't believe he instinctively knew how to calm himself down! He knew my coat and boots would help him feel better. He knew he needed alone time so he would stop being upset. He knew he needed silence (head phones) and softness (blankie). He knew what he needed...and then got it for himself! Amazing.

So yes, from the outside, the whole thing looked a little bonkers. A little disconnected and random and odd. But if you know my boy, and you know what he's been working on for 10 years, and you know his struggles and limitations, you know that this was a life-changing moment for Benjamin. He experienced a strong negative emotion and then dealt with it appropriately, not with a rage. This was a success. This was movement in the best direction possible. This was amazing. 

I'm proud of my Ben. He's making changes that would be tough for anyone, even a grownup, and he's not even realizing how much he's changing for the better. He's an incredible kid. I like being on the inside when I catch my kids growing in all kinds of ways.

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