Saturday, December 7, 2013

Fear Itself

Sophia loves gymnastics, so it came as quite a surprise when she freaked out at the prospect of moving up from “Tiny Tumblers” to “Beginners.”  I naturally assumed she’d be thrilled to join the bigger girls, be able to do more.  Instead, she burst into tears.

“I don’t want to,” she objected on the way from the gym to the car.

“Please don’t make me,” she begged, shaking in her booster seat.

“I just want to stay in Tiny Tumblers!” she wailed, her tears real and heavy, rolling down her face.

I had hoped that, perhaps, with some time to think about it, she’d get used to the idea.  But no, every morning, when she woke up, as if she had been wrestling with the idea all night long, she’d sob, “I don’t want to be in Beginners.”

Would it be cruel to make her do this thing she feared so much?

I wrestled with it too.  On the one hand, it seemed to be an irrational fear.  Like I said, she loves gymnastics.  She bounces with excitement the whole time she’s there, a grin stretched out on her face as she does c-drops on the trampoline, swings from the lowest of the uneven bars, walks with great poise across the balance beam and cartwheels through an obstacle course.  On the other, do I really need to push her to do any activity at her age?  There’s time, right?

But here’s what I know about fear.  Avoidance of the feared thing validates the fear.  It feeds the fear, and the fear grows.  What starts out as a pang, soon looms large as an impossibility. 

Facing our fears, a little bit at a time, is the only way to overcome them.  In cognitive behavioral therapy, this is known as exposure.  You create a hierarchy of various gradations of the feared thing and gradually expose yourself to them over time.  Since fear is anticipatory, once you see you can handle lesser versions, you gain confidence, and eventually mastery over your fear.  So, in this case, it might be that Sophie starts by observing the Beginners class with me at her side, praising her for this first step.  Next time she watches for a while and then joins them for a short period of time, maybe just one activity, still with me in the room giving her the thumbs up.  Then she might stay for increasingly longer periods of time in my smiling and winking presence.  Finally, I would begin to fade myself out, moving from inside the gym to the observation room where the parents gather to watch their children, mouthing “Good job, Soph!” from behind the plate glass windows.

Any suggestion of this to Sophia, however, instantly brought on a spate of tears. 

I shared my concerns with the gymnastics staff.  They let me know who her new teacher would be.  Fortunately, it was the same dynamic, fun, energetic teacher who had orchestrated her recent birthday party at the gym, Mr. D.

“Would you like for him to talk to Sophie?” the woman at the desk asked me, the week before we were due to make the switch.

“Yes!  Please!” I replied, a little too loudly. 

“Not a problem.  We don’t want little Miss Sophie to be so upset!” 

And so, that week, the last week of Tiny Tumblers with Miss Heather and all of Sophie’s tiny, tumbling friends, Mr. D called Sophie aside.  I watched from the observation room.  He was smiling.  She nodded a few times.

When class was over, I told her I saw her talking to Mr. D.

“What did he say to you?”

“He asked me if I wanted to be in his class.” 

“What did you say to him.”

“I said ‘maybe.’”  Well, this was progress. 

I placed a moratorium on any discussion of gymnastics.  There seemed to be no sense in stirring her up further. 

The following week, on the appointed day, I picked Sophie up from school.   As we made our way to the car, it dawned on her where we were going. 

“I don’t want to go to gymnastics!  Please just take me home!”  I felt a physical pain in my heart. 

“Soph, I know you can do this.  I know you can be brave.  And you’ll see—Beginners is just like Tiny Tumblers, only you’ll be with kids your own age and you’ll get to do more cool stuff.”

“I don’t want to do more stuff.  I want to do what I was doing.”

“I know, hon. But you’re getting to be a big girl.  Tiny Tumblers is for 3-5 year olds.   You’re six now.  And they told me that you’re ready.  I promise,  I wouldn’t make you do anything that you weren’t ready for. “

Nothing but sniffling in the back seat. 

“You know what I think?”


“I think that people who are brave should be rewarded.”  I glanced in the rearview mirror, a wry smile on my face.  It was time to bring out the big guns:  Bribery. 

“Rewarded?”  Sophie was smiling too, in spite of herself.

“Yeah.  Like in stories, heroes are always rewarded for their bravery.  I think it would be a brave thing for you to try out Beginners today.  Do you know what being brave means?”

“Yes.  It means doing something you think you can’t do.” 

“Yes, that and something that you are afraid to do.  It’s about standing up to your fear.”

Sophie nodded, digesting this. 

“So what kind of a reward do you think you should get for doing something you are afraid to do and think you can’t do.”

“I don’t know, mom.  You tell me.”  Sophie is often unable to choose, when faced with the prospect of getting something special.

“How about we go out for ice cream?” 

“Can I get a topping?” She ups the ante. 


“Any topping I want?”

“Yes.  Any topping you want.”

“Okay, mom.  I’ll do my best to be brave.”

We arrived at the gym and Sophie quickly changed in the bathroom.  As she did, she told me about a dream she had had:

“We were warming up in gymnastics.  Miss Heather took one of my arms, and Mr. D took the other.  Like they were playing tug of war.  And they pulled at me until my arms came off and I couldn’t go on the bars anymore!”

My poor, poor baby.  I hated to watch her go through this.  “You’re going to be fine, Soph.  Be brave!”  I gave her a hug. 

Once inside the gym, I was informed by a man with a list that Sophie was going to be in Miss Ricky’s class, not Mr. D’s.  Why this switch was made, given the circumstances, was beyond me.  But I decided not to let Sophie see me sweat. 

“Okay,” I said brightly, “Sophie is a little nervous about moving up to beginners.”

“A lot of kids feel that way,” said the man with the list. 

“Okay, if I bring her over?” 

“Sure.  And if you need to stay for a bit, that’s cool.”

I walked Sophie over to Miss Ricky and was thrilled to see that one of Sophie’s friends from nursery school was in the class.  Sophie, wrapped herself around one of my legs and began to cry.  The teacher helped pry her off. 

“This is Sophie,” I said. 

“Hi Sophie,” said Miss Ricky.

“Who are all of you?” I asked the girls.  Each one said their name, and Sophie’s little friend grabbed her by the hand.  “Sophie!  We’re doing cartwheels,” she began to explain. 

I took this as my opportunity to back up a few steps.  Sophie continued to sniffle, but she allowed me to walk away.  “I’m going to be right over there.” I said, pointing to the wall.  I stood by the wall and watched flashing smiles and thumbs up, each time she looked my way.  The third time, she gave me a thumbs up back. 

After twenty minutes, she was fully engaged, smiling, laughing, bouncing just as she always had.  I pantomimed that I was going to go up to the observation room.

Sophie nodded.

From the room, I watched as for the first time, the teacher let them use the chalk before they pull themselves up onto the uneven bars.  Sophie carefully covered every bit of her hands until they were bright white.  She held them up to the window to show me.

After class, I asked her how Beginners was.

“Awesome!” Sophie declared, “Can we come every Wednesday?” 

We had a lovely evening that night.  Eating our ice-creams and pretending to be sharks.  Two days later, we were in the kitchen, making pancakes for breakfast together.  Sophie pull a magnet off the refrigerator. 

“Mom!  This is what I did about gymnastics!”

The magnet had a quote on it from Eleanor Roosevelt.  The quote had gotten me through a difficult period in my life, when I fought to overcome my shyness and was learning to facilitate trainings of large groups of people.  It is something that I now do with relative ease.  In fact, I had done three just this week. 

The magnet reads,

You must do the thing you think you cannot do. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Games Psychologists Play

We are sitting around the dinner table, Kevin, Sophia, and I when I suggest we play big, medium, or little problem. 

“Okay, Mom!  Sophie says enthusiastically. Give me one.”

“Big, medium or little problem—you want to wear a particular outfit one day, but you realize that it’s in the laundry.”

“That’s easy.  Little problem.” 

“I agree,” I say. 

Kevin jumps in, “Big, medium or little problem-- you have no place to live.”

“BIG PROBLEM!” Sophie calls out. 

“That is a big problem.” 

“My turn! My turn!  Sophie insists. 

“Hit me,” I say

“Your house burns down so you have no more food and nothing to drink and you dehydrate and die.”

“That sounds like a big problem.”  Kevin ventures.

“One of the biggest, “ I add. 

The point is not just to relish the misery of others; this is not a game of schadenfreude.  Rather, we are trying to teach Sophie to differentiate what’s worth flipping out over and what isn’t.

This lesson has been slow in coming.  Some kids are just more than others—more intense, more emotional, more volatile and easily triggered by even the slightest of insults.  It’s hard to know what will set her off:
·      Her shoes are too tight (because she pulled the Velcro closure until to was cutting off her circulation)
·      There’s a fleck of pepper on her brussel sprout
·      She didn’t make a perfect “m”
·      Everyone (in kindergarten) will think her very adorable hat looks stupid

There’s crying, screaming, falling off of chairs, grand exits, door slamming, and, occasionally, I get bitch slapped. 

It is during these times, that I must reach deep within myself to find my empathy.  Can you imagine, going through life, so tortured by these details?  I can see it in her eyes.  She isn’t enjoying this.  She’s in pain. 

Not being able to regulate your emotions is a skill deficit.  Most kids develop internal controls by the age of six, but some do not.  I see kids with the same problem every week in my work.

It used to be that at work, I’d develop curricula for social skills development.  I’d train others to teach these curricula.  I’d design interventions.  I teach parents how to implement them.  But at home, I’d get frustrated. 

Eventually, I realized that hoping she will grow out of it and trying to be as patient as humanly possible is simply not enough.   I have to practice what I preach. 

The key is that you have to play the game in times of peace.  You can’t stand over your child who is having an apoplexy just because you sprinkled a little cinnamon on her oatmeal against her unspoken wishes and ask, “Is this a big, medium, or little problem?”

At least not initially. 

But if you do, and you do it frequently enough…not so frequently that it becomes oppressive and clinical, but often enough that your child comes home from school one day and tells you:

“Today at lunch we played big, medium or little problem.”

“Oh yeah?

“Yeah.  Ms. R. Said ‘big, medium, or little problem:  you eat too much vegetables.” 

“And what did you say?

“No, I didn’t answer, Ava did.”

“Well then, what did Ava say?”

“She said Big Problem!  I said little problem because it’s healthy for you.  Miss R. said if you’re used to it, little problem.  If you are not, big.”

“Ms. R. sounds like a smart woman.” 

“She is,” Sophie nodded. 

It has become part of her repertoire.  A tool in her toolbox.  Something, now, I can gently ask her to remove in times of trouble. 

Of course, there is an art to this.  There is a sweet spot.  A small window of time during which you can jump in and gently suggest that she conduct her analysis.  It’s the beat, the infinitesimal space between realizing she has a problem, and getting hijacked by her amygdala again.  That tiny part of the brain responsible for fight or flight when one feels threatened.

If you miss it…the game becomes part of the problem.  But if you catch it…

We were at the Thanksgiving table.  I set a small pile of roasted brussel sprouts on her plate.  Sophie’s horsepower kicked in, she revved from 0-90 in a split second:

“I DON’T WANT ANY BRUSSEL SPROUTS!  TAKE THEM OFF MY PLATE.”  She slumped down in her seat, as if the brussel sprouts were an oppressive weight on her very soul. 

“Soph, you’ve got too many vegetables.  Big, medium or little problem?”

Her eyes were still fighting me, but a smile broke out on her lips. 

“Can you take some of these off my plate, please,” I modeled.

“Can you take some of these off my plate, please,” she parroted. 

Kevin removed some of the brussel sprouts.  Great weight lifted, Sophie rose back up in her chair.  Peace and harmony were restored. 

Later, she asked for a second helping.