Saturday, January 17, 2015

How My Child's Therapy Helped Me Be a Better Parent

We were in the town library, and I was attempting (and not really succeeding) at getting Chloe to do a very simple puzzle. As she picked up a piece and began shoving it in as best as she could back onto the board, upside down, I heard myself say "turn it OVER!" in a voice that reminded me exactly of a therapist Ethan had had at some point. I'm not even sure which one.

There's definitely something about watching Chloe learn and grow that is inevitably bringing back all sorts of flashes of Anna's and Ethan's infant and toddlerhoods. Therapists were a big part of Ethan's life from ages almost 2 until about 5 (and still are more marginally today). Speech therapists. Play therapists. ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapists. Physical and occupational therapists. And so, as I watch Chloe, I remember. And as I remember, I recall how much I've learned.

You see, all of those sessions over the years, all of those interactions and discussions, taught me a lot about autism, yes. But in retrospect I can see that through Ethan's therapies I also picked up a few things that helped me be a better parent:

1) One of the most profound things I learned while Ethan was having therapy was about setting your child up for success, when he's learning something new. I don't mean letting your child win or constantly telling her she's going to be a success or that she's done something amazing when she hasn't. What I mean is -- when they're just attempting a new skill, especially if they have a pretty low tolerance for frustration, set them up to succeed so they'll keep trying more difficult challenges.

The puzzle reminded me of Ethan attempting puzzles during therapy sessions when he was little. Placing a completely blank puzzle in front of a child and telling her to get moving is probably going to overwhelm her. But start with just two pieces, and suddenly she gets that sense of accomplishment and is eager for more.

Today if Anna's trying to clean her outrageously messy room or Ethan's attempting to help with vacuuming, I still encourage them to start small, to do something that will give them a sense of accomplishment. There's nothing worse than trying to do something and not knowing where to start. Even adults can relate to that.

2) Be willing to change the plan if what you're doing is not working. The best therapists, I've found, are the ones who are willing to deviate from the plan if they're not reaching the child. I can't think of how many times Ethan would get into "silly" mode during therapy sessions and not want to complete the task at hand. And while yes, there is a time that your child is going to have to learn to sit and attend to the task at hand, the greater issue is that you reach and make a connection with them. If you push an issue with force or inflexibility you may get a result in the moment, but there's a far higher chance it won't be a lasting one.

When Ethan was rolling around on the floor giggling instead of complete a certain task, many times his therapists would think of a creative way to reach him at his make what they were doing more fun...or to hold off until another day. Keeping this kind of open mind is invaluable whether your child is 2 or 20, but particularly when you've battling a strong-willed toddler (or I suppose a strong-willed middle or high schooler). Which leads me to:

3) Know your child's tolerance level and threshold, meaning: know when he's passed that point of no return and is no longer listening or learning. I see this with Chloe all of the time actually, when she has her physical therapy appointments for torticollis. She's not a big fan of therapy, but can usually tolerate about 40 minutes before she starts to get cranky. Her therapist makes a point to do a couple of things. One is to start with more fun activities that aren't going to stress her early on and make the appointment go south immediately. The other is to watch for signs of distress and to give a break when that happens. When you do, you buy more time and actually help increase your child's tolerance level.

And really, it's a good lesson for all of us: when you're getting stressed, don't quit. Take a break, then return. You just might surprise yourself with what you can accomplish if you push yourself just a little bit more (but not too, too much).

I never knew that while rushing from one appointment to the next, that by watching other people down on the floor with one child, I might learn things that would apply to all of them. And apply to life. These are lessons that can never be unlearned, and that we'll always keep living out, as each of our kids learns and grows.

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