Nobody likes to be the bad guy, but sometimes because you are a parent, it is your responsibility to stand up and take it like a man, or as in my case, like a woman. Today I was given another reminder of this.
My girls have been away at day camp this week. It’s a day at the lake in the blazing hot sun with lots of other excitable children, enthusiastic camp leaders and activities that I could only dream of doing as a child. It is a day of go-go-go from the minute you get on the bus until the second you step off it again almost seven hours later. I know that when my children are done for the day, they are exactly that…DONE!
I have learnt this the hard way, the messy way, but I get it now.
In years gone by, before experience had taught me this valuable lesson, I did crazy things like timing the pick up of my girls with a quick side-trip to the store. Not a big shopping experience, just a dash in and out for the basics. Ahhhh no, I don’t that any more. I would sometimes arrange for friends to come over in the afternoon for a play date once we were home. Ahhhh no, I don’t do that anymore either. Would you believe that there were even days when I would plan to do something ‘extra special’ in the late afternoon once they were back from camp? Ahhhh NO, I definitely don’t do that any more… NOT ever!!
Some kids would handle all of the above without any problem, my eldest generally does, but my youngest most definitely does not. She is a sensitive kid. I don’t mean the kind of sensitivity used in everyday conversation meaning that she gets her feelings easily hurt. No, much more than that.
What I am referring to is her heightened sensory awareness. Quite simply put, her sensory input dial is turned up really high, a lot higher than most other people. She was born this way, this is how she still is and will always be. The whole world goes into her system in as if it were in stereo. When she is hot, she is boiling. When something is loud, it is piercing. When she is upset, she is devastated. When she is happy, she is elated. The list goes on. There are no muted colours in her world, she lives in full blown colour, all of the time. For the most part she manages really well, but sometimes it can and does get too overwhelming and when that happens, I have to step in and be the bad guy.
Over the past almost ten years (Yes, it is a lengthy process) I have become more adept at reading her. I usually know how much she can take and I also know how it is going to play out if she doesn’t get the quiet time she needs away from it all in order to reset her system.
The thing is, I do what I do not because I am a mean Mom who doesn’t want her daughter to have too much fun, I do it because she isn’t always able to gauge for herself when she is nearing her own tipping point. That might sound a bit odd, not being able to tell when things are getting too much, but when you are young and you are living fully in each moment, you can’t yet sense when it is all getting to be too much for you to take in. It just suddenly happens, and then you go into sensory over load and you lose it.
I know the day will come when she will be able to do this for herself. I’ve seen her do it more and more as she has matured, but for now, when she is in full blown ‘I’ve been to camp all day, I have had the best time ever, I don’t ever want this to end, I want to keep the craziness going by having a have a playdate straight after camp’ mode…I have to make the call for her in that moment. And it ain’t pretty.
When she was younger it was a noisy business, the crying, the shouting, the general mayhem of trying to change my mind. Many a time we were the family everyone else turned to stare at. I remember those times well, but we have moved on now. I’m pleased to be able to say, as she grows up it gets progressively easier but it has taken us time to get here. You can’t hurry True Growth, even though we would all dearly love to.
So, why am I telling you all of this? Because, unless you have a sensitive child it is hard to really understand what I am describing. I am speaking out on behalf of the parents who know what I am referring to and I’m saying to you, you are not alone, I get it. To the rest of the world, I’d like you to know that this is not about having a child who doesn’t know how to behave appropriately, this isn’t about a child who is spoilt and who is intentionally putting on a performance to get her way. Contrary to popular belief, it’s also not about me being an ineffective parent.
What this is about is being on a journey where we navigate our way through life with a child who frequently experiences sensory overload. There is no technique or method that will stop her from being this way. There are no rewards or consequences that will get her to put the lid on it when she has had too much sensory stimulation. All that we can do is to help her through it when it happens, and know that it is very hard on everyone – the onlookers, the parents, the siblings and most of all, the sensitive child.
Whilst waiting for the camp bus to arrive at the end of the day, I met up with a friend of mine who was also waiting for the safe return of her children. She mentioned that her two were likely to ask for a playdate today. I replied saying that mine would probably do the very same thing but I would be saying No today because after a day at camp my youngest unmarried is in full sensory overload. I explained that I needed to keep our afternoons as low key as possible so that she could reintegrate before heading back into the camp frenzy tomorrow and everyday for the rest of the week. She nodded knowingly as she too has a sensitive child, a lot milder, but enough so to be able to relate to my reasons.
So, the bus stops, all of the kids pile out. All smiles and crazy eyes. I can read my child like a book. She is clearly in overdrive. The anticipated request for a playdate comes. I was ready for it and I knew what I had to do, so I did it.
The two youngest girls didn’t like it at all that I had scuttled their plans. I get that, I really do. Next they did what all children do, they went for another attempt and asked the same question over again.
Kids are smart, they often sum up situations quicker than we realise and they go for another angle. This time they don’t ask me, the Mean Mom, instead they look to the other Mom. The one who hasn’t said No… just yet. I feel confident, we’ve already had our pre-bus-arrival-discussion, we are ready for this and I can count on her answer backing me up because of it. The girls make their request. She looks at them, they all look at me, then her answer comes, “I say it’s fine, but you’ll have to ask her, it’s really up to her!” They all turn and look at me.
You have got to be kidding me! Really, really? A simple NO would have done the trick, two mothers united in their quest, two bad guys in cahoots, a united front that could make all the difference. But then, it all becomes so very clear to me, this isn’t up to anyone else, it isn’t reasonable of me to expect others to get involved, it is my responsibility to do what I believe to be the right thing for my child, I can’t put this on anyone else. I have to be the Mean Mom.
All ten eyes are staring at me, waiting for my response. It would be sooooo easy to cave under the pressure but part of being a parent is saying no because you know it is the best thing for your child. Would giving in have saved me a bit of trouble right here and now? Of course it would have, but it won’t help my daughter in the long run because later on when she is completely frazzled by more stimulation, it’s going to be much harder on her. She is going to have a terrible time…and quite frankly, so are the rest of us who live with her.
I dig deep, really deep, as I do believe that I know what is best for my youngest. I hold my No and I say, “Nope it’s not going to work for us today. I know you’d love to, but it’s not going to work today.” The wave of frustration comes and I am ready for it. The pleading and the giving of reasons why it should work are hurled at me from every side. “Nope I say, it’s just not going to work today.” No wishy washiness, no maybe’s, no justification, just a firm but kind NO.
I know enough by now to start heading for the car. A hasty exit is in order. The please, please, pleases trail me to my car. ‘Nope, nope, it’s just not going to work today guys.’ This could turn ugly, we could so easily once again become the car park spectacle for all to look at.
When my children were younger it often times went sideways, but they now have enough integrative functioning to be able to hold it together reasonably well in a public setting. They generally save their outbursts for in the car or at home, away from the prying eyes and judgements of strangers. In a convoluted way this is actually a backhanded compliment. Saving up our frustration for the ones we love the most, the ones who are meant to love you no matter what, is a sign of a deepening attachment, but that is a post for another day.
We say our goodbyes to the friends (through gnashed teeth) and we zoom off. My eldest doesn’t seem phased, but my youngest is teetering on the edge, getting very ready to blow. I know what is coming…
“Why do you have to be so mean? Why do you ALWAYS say no? Why do you NEVER let us do what we want?” There it is, those two little words that tell me everything that I need to know. Always and Never. My child is lacking her ability to have her mixed feelings, she has lost her mix (Dr Gordon Neufeld). In this moment, all she can think about is what isn’t working for her. She can’t see the bigger picture, she can only focus on what she can’t have and it’s all my fault and that makes me the Meanest Mother everrrrrrrrr. This isn’t personal, I don’t need to counter her statement with a list of the hundred things I do for her daily that make me the Best Mother everrrrr. She couldn’t take in those things in right now so why even try? Me talking back would be like adding fuel to a fire…and what’s the sense in that?
“I’m soooo tired, I had to swim soooo far and then some girl hit me with an arrow during archery and it really hurt.” The list goes on and on. There it is, all the bad stuff that hasn’t been working for her all day long mixed in with all the wonderful stuff that has. My child is just tired, nope make that exhausted, she is in full sensory overload because summer camp is just too darn overwhelmingly wonderful when your system is wired to take it all in, in stereo!
Her outburst isn’t personal, it’s all just too much for her right now. I get that now and I know what to do to help her through it. As she grows up, so will her ability to manage herself in the world. One day, she won’t need me to be the Mean Mom, the Bad Guy, the one who says No to playdates after a full day at camp…because she’ll know what she needs for herself.
As we drive up the hill towards our home her frustrated cry turns into a deep sob. In this moment the thwarted playdate may appear to be the reason for her upset but her falling tears are for all of the things that did not work for her today, or yesterday or the day before that.We all need to let it out some place safe, that place for her is within our relationship.
The sobbing continues and it signals to me that she is feeling the futility of what cannot be changed sinking in. Her soft heart is allowing her to experience her vulnerable feelings and her brain is adapting to that which she cannot change. As hard as it is to watch, I know that this is part of her truly growing up. She will come through this, we’ll come through this. Her tears slow and then softly her little voice says, “I just want to go home and sit quietly.”
Yes, my sweet child, I know you do, I know that all too well. I’m your Mom and I’ve got you.
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