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Monday, April 18, 2016

What Kind Of Smart Are You?

The other day, my little Ella was putzing around like she always does after school. Dibbling in this, dabbling in that. Dancing and twirling and doing cartwheels and head stands on the family room floor. As she flitted through her fairy-like movements, she announced to me that she thinks she has OCD.

Wow. This kid. Some of my children are much less self-aware than my daughter. It has taken YEARS of therapy to get some of my kiddos to be able to BEGIN to understand themselves on an emotional, physical, and mental level. They still haven't mastered this skill. Some of my boys are still pretty far away from anything that resembles "self- awareness."

And then my 6 year old waltzes in and announces that she knows she has OCD. Blow me over with a feather.

I asked Ella if she knows what OCD is, and why she thinks she has it. She said, "It's when you have to do something a lot of times and you can't stop doing it even if you want to."

Right on, sista. Guess you do know what the definition is. She said she has to do certain things even though she doesn't want to, like pull out her eyelashes. Or cut her nails until there isn't any nail left to cut (a la Aidan) (And Jonah). I asked Ella if it bothers her to have to do these things. She exclaimed, "YES! All the TIME!"

I'm finding this a recurring theme in my children's lives, and it's something I wish I could change and I can't. They all have behaviors they want to change and that annoy or hurt them, but they have no power over them. Like the tics from their Tourette Syndrome. Or the inability to focus from their ADHD. Or their obsessive behaviors from their OCD. Or their dislike of all kinds of things from their SPD. Or the fact that they can't understand what people are saying to them sometimes because of their auditory processing disorder. I would take all these things on myself in a heartbeat if I could, but I can't. It's depressing to love your kids more than life itself, and to watch them suffer and not be able to fix it.

As I have dealt with my feelings of helplessness over my children's special needs that I can't eliminate, I've come up with a strategy that not only helps me feel like I'm helping the kids, but it also does benefit them. At least that's what I tell myself so I feel like I am able to help them on some level. Whenever one of my children expresses frustration about a special need they have, I use it as a teachable moment to help them learn coping skills. Because the reality is that they probably will have these special differences for their entire lives, and I want them to be happy and functional humans, so they're going to need to know how to navigate life while suffering from tics, OCD, SPD, ADHD....

So whenever one of my darlings says, "My tic (insert any other problem- cutting the skin on the bottom of my feet until they bleed, having to pull out my eyelashes, can't keep up with my class, etc) is really bothering me and I can't stop doing it," I try to empathize, and also normalize and sympathize and brainstorm about ways to deal with the problem in a healthy way. I'm not always good at this, but I try. I want the kids to know that it's ok to be different from their peers. And yes, these things really really suck. But they are amazing people, and have a ton of gifts to offer the world, and this is their life and they have to find ways to manage their disabilities. When Ella has her tummy-rolling tic and gets frustrated because it's annoying and hurts and she doesn't want to do it anymore, we talk about how sometimes she has to do it and sometimes she doesn't. Sometimes that tic goes away and another one comes instead. So maybe it's almost time for that tic to go away. And in the meantime, she can wear clothes that are comfortable and don't sit on her tummy, because that makes her feel like she REALLY has to tic. And she can talk about how her tics make her feel anytime she wants to. And she's not alone because we have a whole house full of ticcers!

Last week, Ella, Alex and I were snuggling in our bed on a Saturday morning. Ella was talking about her tics and how she hates them. I said it must be so hard to have to deal with tics, and I'm so sorry that she has to have tics. She said, "Mama, I wish you had tics." I asked why. She said, "Because then you would really know how I feel."

Well thanks, now my heart was just ripped out of my chest. I wish I could take those tics away from all my ticcers. I would gladly have them if I could spare my kids from them. I told Ella I know I don't have tics, but I can imagine what they feel like. And I'm always here for you if you want to talk about them. Alex told Ella that although Mama doesn't have tics, he does! And he does understand exactly how she feels! And the boys all have tics too, and they all know what the tics feel like.

Sometimes it's very weird for me to live in this family of ticcers, ADHD-ers, mood disorders, etc. because I don't have any of that. I'm the only person in our house who doesn't. I feel like the oddball sometimes. Although I am so grateful that if we have to have all these issues, we have lots of people who have them so they can all commiserate together. It's an interesting life we have in this family.

Last week, Ella was upset after school because -again- she hadn't done enough work throughout the week, and she isn't as fast as the other kids in her class at doing work. She said she gets distracted all the things around her, she talks to her friends too much, she just can't pay attention. She constantly says that she is dumb, that she isn't as smart as her friends because she can't work as fast as they can at school, or she gets more problems wrong on tests, etc.

I pulled Ella onto my lap and squished her in a big Mama Hug. I said, "You know how we say the boys' brains work differently from some other people's? It's not a bad thing, it's just that their brains are different so some things feel harder for them, like school stuff, and we have to do things in a different way sometimes than our friends. Your brain is different too. You have what is called ADHD. We talk about that with the boys a lot too, so I know you've heard it before. You have it too, and it just means that sometimes it's harder for your brain to pay attention, or focus, or do what it is supposed to do."

Ella asked if she was going to take more meds like the boys do for their ADHD.


We always try to emphasize that there are lots of kinds of "smart." There is school smart, but there is also body smart, heart smart, intuition smart. You can be great with animals, like Aidan. You can be a super gymnast and dancer, like Ella. You can have the determination it takes to learn to ride your bike without training wheels in ONE afternoon, like Ella. Or learn how to roller skate in one morning. Or take care of anyone who needs help. You can sense how others feel, and feel their souls with your heart, like Ben, Ella, Aidan and Jonah do. You can do hilarious impressions of famous people, like Jonah does so well. You can be a social butterfly and make friends everywhere you go, like Aidan. You can be funny and silly and passionate and enjoy each minute of life to its fullest, like Ben. There are so many ways to be a smart person, and book smart is just one of those ways.

Unfortunately, until Ella is about 21, it's the way that she will be judged most harshly. It's so hard for my kids to fit into the way the world wants them to be- go to school, be good at school, manage things independently, learn easily...that's just not our strong suit in our family. We have other smarts, but school smarts are tough. I wish there was a place my kids could go for learning that would encourage them to become even more of the person they were meant to be. I wish there was somewhere they could go to school that didn't give them anxiety every morning, and make them ask at 6:03 every single morning, panicked, "Is it a school day today??" I just can't find a place that will help them flourish, strengthen their areas of weakness, and not make them feel like they are complete idiots because they can't write numbers on a scroll up to 1,000 as fast as the other first graders.

I hate that we have to combat their insecurities they accumulate from being out in the world. Why isn't the world cherishing their weak spots and, while helping them grow and learn, emphasizing how each child is so smart in their own ways? Why is it all about test scores and speeding through work and getting things done? Why isn't it more about the journey you experience while getting things done? Why don't we have more free time to spend outside collecting ladybugs and listening to the leaves rustle in the trees? Why is life so fast-paced? When you're a kiddo like my four, life is too fast, too hectic, too overwhelming. When you're a kiddo like mine, you need routine and organization, but also ways to learn what your smarts are, what you're good at. Life isn't school. School is part of a life, but life isn't school. You learn invaluable skills by going to school, that's true. But when a kiddo isn't good at the school scene, they're left to believe that they aren't good at life. But there is so much more to life, I keep telling my kids. Just hang in there. One day, you'll see how big life is and how much you can do in the world.

To answer Ella's medication question, I said we probably would be trying a new med soon. I had been a little hesitant to start her on medication for ADHD because her brothers haven't responded great to any meds in this category. They're better on the meds than off, but still, it's not like a magic switch that gets turned on when they swallow those pills every morning. But I had a talk with Ella's speech therapist, who wisely told me her own experience. She said that the way she thinks about the med question is that medication for ADHD would ideally help Ella's brain be more available for learning, since she wouldn't be so distracted by what is going on around her. She would be able to better focus on all the things a first grader is expected to do.

Wow. That was profound. I so appreciate that view point because it did reframe things for me and help me realize that it's not hurting Ella to put her on meds. It's hopefully helping her to tune out all the distractions, even a little bit, so that she can focus on what she needs to do to fit into the school that she is in. Since we don't have the idealistic, fairy school I wish we had that would teach children how to read and write, but also that cartwheels and bug collecting and hugs have value too.

Our psychiatrist and I have talked about how Ella has ADHD, but we've been waiting on starting meds for it. We needed to get her anxiety under control first, which we have done. She does really great with that, overall. She is even comfortable walking down the block by herself to a friend's house again. Whenever she can, she's happy as a clam to play outside with her friends all day. Sometimes she even goes into their houses to play. Shocker. I think the trauma of a few months ago - a dog bite followed by a concussion- is in her past and she is becoming her sunny old self again. So now we may be able to address the ADHD.

I was hoping not to have to put Ella on meds, at all. But right now this is the best we have to offer my daughter if we want her to be able to focus and understand school better. We still do a million other things to help support her too. It's not just medication. It's meds as a part of the big picture of Project Helping Ella Be Happy And Healthy. That includes several therapies, reiki, MNRI, having a terrific first grade teacher who is sensitive to Ella's needs, seeing the school social worker, making sure Ella knows that Daddy and I are always here for her, essential oils, keeping her involved in all the sports she loves so much, healthy foods...the list goes on and on.

I'm just amazed at the little being my daughter is. She is so uniquely perfect and fragile and steel-strong and determined and completely sensitive and so beautiful. I love her self-awareness. Her intuition. Her need to help others who are suffering. Her desire to do well and be a good person. (Except when she tries to shop lift a lipstick she adores and Mama has said "no" to and she tries to put it in her pocket but Mama knows she has this trick so Mama snatches the almost-stolen item out of Ella's pocket and we have a long chat about right and wrong. When it comes to lipstick, Ella would beg, steal, or cut off a limb for any shade she deems fabulous. You have to watch Miss Sticky Fingers when you're in a makeup store.)

My girl. She is such a gift to this world, which is why it breaks my heart when she feels that she is "less than." Not smart, not fast, not funny. Not true. We keep focusing on things Ella is that make her so special. The world is a better place because Ella is in it.

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