high anxiety
8 November 2002

As of September, our monthly Floor Time clinic meetings have become a small affair, just Kahuna (point person for the team), Cheri (supervisor) and me. Oh, and Damian. Yes, my little guy has to be present and accounted for while we talk over his head about his progress and stumbling blocks. Awkward? Hell, yes.

The first of these new-style meetings occurred three weeks ago. My agenda going in was simple. Talk about how to get Damian more comfortable around other children. How to bridge that narrowing but still present gap. How to unlock the ever-perplexing mystery of why Damian, with so much going for him now, is still so standoffish.

Cheri’s answer was breathtakingly, shockingly simple. Provocatively simple. Her answer was this: It’s all about Damian’s anxiety.

We’ve talked about this before, about how he withdraws, shuts off outside stimulus when it gets overwhelming. How he gets flooded with input and can’t handle it. How he sometimes develops strange rigid habits: "You must hold my hand even though we’re in the house, even though your arms are full of laundry, even though I know the way to my room blindfolded" and "If we’re in the house, my shoes must be off even if we’re going outside in two minutes. But shoes only. Do not ever, on the pain of loud, piercing wails, attempt to remove my socks." More, he panics at the slightest provocation. This all used to be far worse (most of the examples I just gave no longer apply). I used to be an expert at the soothing tone, the careful application of juice through a straw, the slow creaking forward-and-back of the antique walnut rocking chair.

Yes, we’ve talked about all this in past clinic meetings. Kahuna has worked over the months on what he calls "pushing Damian’s buttons," changing the pattern of his response, not following Damian’s strictures. If Damian’s shoe is untied, Kahuna will delay tying it until after their game/snack/activity. If Damian wants Kahuna to carry his snack bag, Kahuna will try but drop it or tell Damian that they’ll carry it together. In the sand yard, Kahuna might "accidentally" splash Damian with sand. Teasing him, not following formula. Stretching Damian’s boundaries.

Robin tried this tactic in the spring, but she roared in like a bulldozer on a demolition site. Pushed far too hard over the course of two back-to-back afternoons. The result: Damian woke up crying in the dark hours between midnight and dawn. Inconsolable. Drifted off to sleep between Mommy and Daddy only to wake again fifteen minutes or an hour later, gasping and crying. For three nights running.

After that, we all backed off. And you know what? They should back off. Their work undermined his confidence instead of boosting it. It’s a parent’s duty to teach a child to handle frustration, to respect boundaries, to learn how much of the world he can and cannot control. A parent is the only one who intimately knows that child, who can read in his face or her voice when is far enough and when is too far. And a parent is the only one the child will trust implicitly. Therapists work on all sorts of interpersonal issues with the children in their care. They have to. But somewhere a line got crossed. Some things still belong to the parent-child relationship.

So this was a fraught subject when Cheri brought it up in our clinic meeting. Weighted with conflicting meanings and implications. And it didn’t necessarily make sense in this context. She wanted me – us – to work on raising Damian’s ability to control his emotions, to calm himself, to self-regulate when we’re alone together. Would that really translate to my little boy standing alone in a crowd of children?

We began the meeting in an empty classroom. The three adults perched on tiny chairs; Damian wandered around the room, investigating and dismissing toys. Restless, anxious. He rejected the play village as too challenging. Settled on a mindless sensory activity – running dry rice through a sieve, scooping the hard nubs into the palms of his hands. Cheri pointed this out, said that he found his own way to soothe his nerves.

We had to relocate before the next class came trooping in. As we walked down the hall to our next location, Damian’s shoelace unraveled. He stopped dead. "Tie my shoe, Mommy!"

"I’ll tie it when we get to the Floor Time room." Delayed gratification. If you don’t get your need met right away (but you know it will be met), you have to stay with and therefore overcome your dread. It had been working fairly well lately. Damian’s shoe came untied in the car one day as we were pulling away from school. I tied it for him… half an hour later. When we pulled into a parking space outside his occupational therapy gym. Which is what I’d told him: "I’ll tie your shoe when we get to Rivka’s." At first he protested vociferously. I repeated. Said it was dangerous to drive and tie. Said he wasn’t walking on that foot anyway. Said everything would be fine, take a deep breath. And then I changed the subject. It worked. He repeated the plaint, but each time with less vigor until finally he forgot about his shoe altogether.

After that, he occasionally untied his own shoe in the car, then demanded that I tie it immediately. Testing the concept. He found out that I’m indeed consistent, that I do not twist my body into pretzels so my eyes can watch the road while my hands perform shoe magic behind my own back. He found out, too, that he can live with a dangling shoelace. Most of all, he discovered that he can conquer the panic. Good lessons, don’t you think?

This time, in the school hallway, was different. He was already stressed. Well, of course. How would you feel if three adults were huddled in the center of a large room and the subject du jour was you? He’s sharp, my son. He knows. He may not understand all the big words, but he knows. So this time the trailing shoelace was a Major Ordeal, the yard and a half to the Floor Time room a veritable Sahara trek. And when he got there? He stood in the doorway, insisting that Now, Right Now, No Later Than Now, the Shoelace That Has Been Torn Asunder Must be Restored To Its Proper State.

Cheri watched as I talked to Damian. I stayed calm, reasonable, tried to keep the bubble of laughter at his overwrought intensity in check. It’s important to not feed anxiety with your own anger. Or laughter, for that matter. I did get him to step into the room but couldn’t get him to come all the way to my lap. So I gave in. There’s a point where you have to meet someone halfway. Even a child.

Cheri said this is the heart of the matter. His shoelace anxiety in that moment, in that situation, came from an overall feeling of teetering on the edge, of not feeling solid ground under his feet.

He used to be afraid to scale the heights of the jungle gym. He couldn’t sense his body in space, couldn’t trust himself not to take a wrong step and end up suspended in air for an endless moment like Wile E. Coyote before a terrifying plunge to cement and wood chips below. He felt overwhelmed.

Now he’s afraid to scale the heights of interpersonal relationships with other small children. He can’t judge his emotional state, can’t trust that he will respond appropriately to their overtures and their aggression, that scary feelings won’t sweep over him and carry him into danger. He feels overwhelmed.

It makes a kind of sense. Help him learn to recognize his emotions, to make them life-sized, and you will give him the tools to feel confident in a room full of children. So simple. So obvious, once someone points it out.

In a way, Cheri was giving me permission to do what I was already doing. But that’s not really true. Because I was doing a half-assed job of it. Dealing with silly rigidities as they came up, letting other ones go, soothing him when he got upset. And most certainly not deliberately setting up occasions to tweak his panic button.

After that meeting, I did just that. Instead of protecting him, guarding against tears and panic, I sought the trigger point for Damian’s overemotional, illogical reactions, even provoked them. It felt counter-intuitive. Counter to every parenting instinct. I want to make my kid feel better, not worse. It brought back visceral memories of a year and a half ago. Early Floor Time sessions. Pushing Damian out of his down-on-his-belly-mindlessly-pushing-Brio-trains rut. Forcing him to interact, forcing him awake. Then, too, it felt so very strange to be the hardass, the one demanding more than he wanted to give. Knowing I’d make him angry. Letting it happen.

And this past month, I was not only allowing for anger, I was hoping for it. So strange. Parenting through the mirror, left is right and right is wrong, or at least not as right as you’d think. Nurturing warmth is wonderful when and as you can. Sometimes it’s not enough.

But something happened on the way to the meltdown. He stopped melting. Tears dried in an instant, his voice calmed, he’d scramble to his feet and saunter off, perfectly fine. How did he learn so fast? Was I performing some kind of magic? No, not me. Him. I think he heard what we said, internalized it, and started to work on it himself. He asked me questions over the next few days, brought up specific things we’d said, though not the things an adult might mention – his version was more like "When Mommy’s on the phone, I like to interrupt her and ask her who she’s talking to." Remembering unconnected bits. So I told him more. Talked to him in simple terms about the conversation he’d heard. It seems he understood.

So the tools: the "You don’t have to panic, a broken Lego house isn’t the catastrophe of the century" reassurance and the "Breathe, slow, in and out" reminder and the "What are you feeling? Why are you crying?" questions (real questions, seeking answers but also trying to help him find his equilibrium as he engaged his mind) – all of that helped, I’m sure, but it helped because he was primed and ready.

Has it helped him socially? A week and a half after the clinic meeting, Damian had a good morning in class. A very good morning indeed. Two children from the (typical) preschool class came to visit the class. Damian showed them around, told them the rules, I imagine along the lines of "This goes here and after snack we put our bags away" but I’m just filling in the blanks; Tania didn’t say.

Later, he and Jules played with toy airplanes, their planes taking off and zooming around, in and around each other. Probably flying to New York or San Francisco, his two favorite destinations. Damian not only stayed, interacted, but he spoke. This is still fairly rare. Spontaneous communication with a peer, as the professionals would say. Playing, present, engaging with both body and voice.

Later still, in the yard. Time to go inside. Damian took it upon himself to tell everyone – individually, by name – to stop what they were doing and come line up to go in. Um, wow. Permit me to fall over in a dead faint. For that single morning, Damian was behaving like a typical child with no reticence, no fear of his classmates. A bossy child, to boot.

The afternoon school went similarly, at least at first. When I left him there, he was on the turtle teeter totter, shouting and laughing with three other children. When one girl got up and wandered off, he called her back. When Kahuna jounced the teeter totter, pretending it was a ship and he was the roiling ocean, Damian exclaimed, "Hold on tight, everyone, or you might fall off!" I left secure in the knowledge that my son had taken a huge leap forward.

Not quite. Apparently he clammed up the moment I was out the door. His exuberance was linked to my presence. I provided the lifeline, the steadying assurance. This one fact – that he could be confident when I was there and withdraw without me – says to me that Cheri is exactly right. It’s all about nerves. When his anxiety meter tightens a notch, he retreats. The trick is to nudge that damned meter ever higher, so it gets triggered less and less often.

I think it’s working. Last week, we had a party to celebrate and watch Dan’s onscreen network debut. I told Damian his friend Sophia was coming. He got excited, kept talking all afternoon about how Sophia was his friend and how she was coming over. He’s never done that, always been guarded even though he probably likes her more than any other kid. When she showed up, he ran to the door, flung it open and greeted her with a hearty, "Hi Sophia! Come play with me!" They went off to his room and played together. On their own. For the first time, I felt no need to watch and guard and foster interaction. I heard them interacting. On their own.

Sunday, too. Another play date with Sophia (one Damian had requested, a first for him). Diane and I were talking in the dining room. Saw Damian stop dead in the hallway. Counting down from ten, then, "Ready or not, here I come!" And he prowled around, ostentatiously looking for her in all the wrong places and commenting as he went. "Is she behind the bathroom door? No. Is she in the hall closet? No. Where is she? Here she is!" Laughter from his bedroom. Her giggles mingled with his.

A couple of days ago, at the park, I stood talking with Heidi. Damian played on and around a small jungle gym. He suddenly ran up to me, upset. A tiny girl with a jet black pageboy and enormous eyes stood right behind him. Not exactly dangerous, but that’s never mattered to him. He gets scared of nine month olds if they’re strangers and they’re children and they invade his space.

"This kid is following me!" He sounded distressed. A hint of panic.

Heidi and I spoke the same words at the exact same time: "That means she likes you!"

"Go, play with her," Heidi added.

Damian saw we weren’t going to protect him. That we weren’t even slightly concerned. He ran off again. The big-eyed elf followed. A moment later, I saw him gesturing. Heard him, "Go away!" But he was smiling! And then he ran, looking back to see if she was chasing him. He’d turned it into a game. He’d controlled his own anxiety, turned it around. Transformed it and himself in the process.

I think we’re on the right track.

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