April 6, 2018

An Emotional Update on Lilly

Last I left you, Lilly was progressing and we were hopeful. Well, like most things in life, it had to get worse before it got better.

Gymnastics is still a struggle. She starts talking about the next class as soon as she’s left the current one. And by “talking”, I mean worrying. Does she have to go? Why? She isn’t going. She won’t participate. I have to drag her there, she stalls, wants to sit for a minute and wait, needs a tissue, my lap, the instructor’s hand. It should be noted, that this is the same kid who ran into ballet class, raced down the soccer field, all over the tennis court and, currently, right after said gymnastics class, can’t wait to get into the pool, in the same facility, for her swim lesson. It’s this darn boy, who called her a baby, tripping her up.

School has gotten slightly better, depending on the day. Some, she walks in fairly easily. Others, she hides behind me and we have to shove her into the classroom. But together, with her teachers and school director, who have been so attentive, we’ve been trying different approaches (assigned seating, unassigned seating, going outside to play before eating lunch so she gets her mind off of it…), talking with her and each other and trying to get the best handle on the situation.

Then, we had a play date over at our house. And everything changed.

To be fair, given the holidays, being sick, traveling, having birthday parties and activities every weekend, we hadn’t had a one-on-one play date at our home in a long time. It was always group ones, at a common, neutral space (After school, she and her friends run around together outside for an hour, even in the snow!) or their place. And Oliver is not really at the age yet where he’s getting into her toys so she, often, doesn’t have to share.

Not only was that a problem but they also couldn’t agree on what to play either. Her friend wanted to set up a car wash and she refused. When she offered up other options, more suitable to her, he declined. She deteriorated and never really recovered. No matter what I tried: intervening, negotiating, disappearing, offering solutions, getting her to be sympathetic… None of it worked or helped. She was too far gone.

After several attempts at trying to make it a teachable moment, followed by a few more of leaving her alone, then, calmly and quietly disciplining her, removing her from the situation, having her sit on my lap, go to her room (this seriously went on for an hour-and-a-half), I lost it. And that moment will forever haunt me.

I came down on her, hard. Her behavior was unacceptable, would not be tolerated, I was disappointed… It wasn’t so much the word choice but the reaction. I was exasperated and enraged. And I took it out on my child. And, understandably, she didn’t react well. She was already upset and I made it so much worse.

We were in her room, she was in her bed and she began to hyperventilate. She was sobbing so much, she couldn’t catch her breath or calm down, no matter how much I encouraged her to (I now know that’s not the thing to say to someone who’s going through something like that.). She kept saying, through bated breath, that she wasn’t okay, she needed medicine (This is usually the child who fights us on Tylenol.). I honestly thought, for a moment, I might have to call an ambulance, that she needed to be sedated. It was so scary.

I climbed into bed with her, laid her body on top of mine, wrapped her in a big bear hug, held down her arms and just breathed with her. Big, deep drawls. And prayed. Prayed that my baby would be okay. That I hadn’t forever scarred her. That we’d figure it out.

After that episode, it was abundantly clear to me, that we are dealing with a very real problem. It was as if everything shifted, the noise settled and it was suddenly so apparent: My daughter has anxiety. And a lot of it.

What I’d written off as challenging or difficult was actually a disorder. One that so many suffer from. One that I barely understand. But now, as her mama, I’m determined to become an expert in it.

I see everything differently now. Her being a homebody is because she’s anxious to leave her comfort zone. Being bossy is her way of making sure she’s in control and nothing and no one set her off. Her OCD is her way to be free.

It breaks my heart to think, at 4, she’s already had to build these barriers to feel safe. These are big things, emotions and feelings well beyond her years and I hate that she’s having to deal with them at such a young age. Then again, like I said in the last post, and as so many of you reached out to me after I spoke about it on Stories said, at least we’re doing something about it now, getting her help and, hopefully, setting her up for the rest of her years on how best to handle life and her reactions to it.

After the disastrous play date, I was so afraid to discipline her, which we know is necessary for a preschooler. I also swore off guests. But that Sunday (the play date was on a Friday), our neighbors invited us over. They have a boy a year younger than Lilly and the two love to play together. My first reaction was, “Oh, hell no!”. Then, I thought better of it. Get her right back in there, used to sharing again.

I sent Zach solo because I couldn’t stomach it again so soon (plus, Oliver was napping). And, for the most part, she did really well. Since then, there’ve been several other play dates at others’ homes where she’s done beautifully. It’s clear the problem is with pals coming into our house, her safe space, with her toys and messing things up.

It’s also with name calling and other elements out of her control. Upon further talks, I learned that one of the boys at school called her a “loser”. That day, she was wearing dark denim jeggings, a charcoal gray sweater, black boots and a pony tail. She became so upset and now associates that “look” with that memory. As a result, she refuses to wear jeans, dark clothes or her hair up. My little girl, who unlike most, could care less about what she wore is now hyper focused on her fashion. Everything must be light, bright and girly. She now only wants to wear dresses and tights with her hair down. If there’s even a speck of navy blue, which she perceives as black, in the pattern on an otherwise hot pink dress, it’s out. For many little ladies, this is common practice but it’s not because they’re being bullied and that’s what breaks my heart. She’s “choosing” this new attire because of one boy and the pain he’s caused.

It’s translated into other areas too. Suddenly, she only wants “soft” foods for lunch and is extremely critical of and anxious about what I pack her and whether she’ll eat it.

Immediately following the play date weekend, I asked for a meeting with her teacher and school director. I was in first thing that Monday. I asked them about anxiety and whether it was too soon to start treatment. They said it’s never too soon, agreed that she’s suffering and recommended a therapist.

The first meeting or “intake” was with Zach and myself where we detailed her history and experiences. I had to hold back tears. There’s something about a therapist’s office, exposing yourself, the couch, the comfort that makes me want to dissolve into a child myself again. You’re so vulnerable. Please help me. Help us.

It was clear we were in the right place. The therapist was so gentle, understanding and sympathetic. And, a mom herself, offered up experiences about her own children. It was a relief to finally be on the path to helping our girl.

From there, the therapist visited Lilly’s school to observe her and then met with her at her office. I told Lilly we were going to see a feelings teacher (the term doctor freaks her out) who has all sorts of fun toys. Upon arrival, she was given the choice of whether she wanted to go in with or without me. She chose without. I was surprised but proud.

After that meeting, I had a final follow up on my own where we discussed what she observed at school, what she and Lilly spoke about in her office and what the evaluation forms that both myself and her teacher filled out revealed. I’m going to keep most of those details private but she did agree that she is in a high percentile for anxiety but that she doesn’t believe she’s a candidate right now for further psychotherapy, which was a relief.

She did suggest occupational therapy so they can explore some of the sensory issues and help build up her confidence. The crazy thing is, anyone who knows Lilly or watches my Stories, would say she’s far from a girl with confidence issues. Over confidence? Maybe. But when she’s called a name, she has trouble rebounding and then anticipates it happening again, paralyzing her from future activities, comfort and success. We’re, of course, absolutely going to get her evaluated for occupational therapy and give it a try. I’m all about giving her as many tools as possible to navigate this life.

The biggest takeaways were suggestions she provided me with in the form of how to address my daughter. My major concern is that I want to validate her feelings and she absolutely agreed that’s necessary. To hear her out, acknowledge her concerns with things like, “I understand that may seem scary. How about we…” and offer up a solution or alternative option. For instance, this worked well the other day: After telling her I’d like to return the favor to the friends who had her over, she flipped out. I asked her to tell me why it made her upset, which she was unable or unwilling to articulate. So I said, “I’m sure the thought of sharing your toys makes you uncomfortable and that’s understandable. Why don’t you pick three items that you don’t want touched and we’ll put them in Mommy and Daddy’s room during the play date?” She liked that idea but was still upset at the thought of everything being messed up. So I said, “At the end of the play date, Mommy will help you clean up and put everything back in its proper place. How does that sound?” I also reassured her that things can get messy and it’s okay. And, who knows, maybe if someone put something back in a new place, we’d like it better there? Or perhaps they’d get out a toy to play with that we forgot we even owned and we can rediscover it together.

She said to help build up her confidence and self-esteem to be precise in our praise. I always say, “Good job! That’s beautiful! Awesome! I’m proud of you!” But she advised that we say specific things like, “I really like the way you gave that toy to Thomas after you were finished with it. It made me so happy to see you share with your friends. And I’m sure it made him feel so good too.” She said she’s not too young to teach and reinforce empathy and that, sadly, most schools don’t do that these days.

She also suggested, in regards to her endless, anxious questions (more than just the standard, curious 5-year-old fare), to reply once and then when she asks the same question the next dozen times to say, “asked and answered”. Like, “Lilly, you already asked me that question and I answered it, it hasn’t changed. Please don’t ask me again.” You have to cut her off.

But perhaps the best piece of advice given was to TAKE AWAY YOUTUBE.

When we moved and Lilly was out of school, for her birthday, we gave her a new iPad because she’d been using our first generation one that was on the fritz. We loaded it up with all sorts of apps and age appropriate cartoons and, of course, limited her time on it. But, unbeknownst to me, Zach also put YouTube on it. His intention was good. He wanted her to be able to access some old school cartoons that she’d come to love. Little did we know…

Soon, she was immersed in a world of unboxing and toy review videos. In came the constant request for things. She knew about every animated character, blind bag, series, was always asking to go to Target to look at the toys… But then it was the bootleg stuff. One day I looked up and bloody Paw Patrol characters were beating each other up. And we were always overhearing inappropriate words. I kept asking, “Is that a nice one?” to which she’d give me a look and then close out and choose another. Zach and I soon spent every night blocking another round of junk. But, even if it wasn’t necessarily bad, she was still hooked. Luckily for us, she didn’t lose her mind when it was time to turn it off, like I know some other kids do. In fact, she often chose to stop it herself and go play. But she never watched regular cartoons anymore, nor did she play her apps. It was all YouTube, all the time.

We knew it was a problem. We knew we should take it away. But every time we talked about it, she erupted. And, if I’m being honest, it was just easier to block stuff and allow her to continue. Once the therapist told us how bad it actually is for her: raised heart rate, overactive brain, addiction, we were determined. (Please note, this is not a post about too much screen time. We are certainly guilty of that! It’s about what’s on the screen that’s so crucial.)

Zach told her he read that YouTube was going away. (Okay, so we little white lied our way out of this one. Won’t be the last time!) Once it was no longer used as a punishment or threat, it was just matter of fact and we continued to talk about it over a period of a few days, let it settle in, surprisingly, when it came time for it to go, it was a nonevent! We’d made it out to be so much worse in our head. I thought, for sure, we were doomed for days of tears, acting out, fits… Instead, it was actually quite calm.

It’s gotten even more peaceful. Zach and I agree that we’ve both noticed an improvement in Lilly. She’s less volatile, irritable and jumpy. And, while she still watches her iPad often, it’s less of a NEED. She’s not racing to it first thing every morning or screaming about shutting it down each night. She’s even started sleeping later, which the therapist thought would happen. I mean, this crap is conditioning them to lose sleep because they can’t wait to get up and get their fix, like an addict. She’s also returned to and rediscovered old favorites like Curious George and Angelina Ballerina that she hadn’t watched in years. There’s no longer the incessant requests for new toys either. Plus, she’s started reading more of her beloved books again that she’d, sadly, taken a break from.

Her therapist urges that while it was especially an issue for a kid like Lilly, who’s already anxious, it’s extremely dangerous (her word) for all children. She says there’s a reason for the cadence of cartoons like Daniel Tiger or Dora. They’re designed to slow kids down (while still imparting wisdom). There’s enough in life (their own natural energy and that of others, music, sports, sugar…) to amp them up, they don’t need it from their technology too. She says that YouTube, in particular, is so fast paced, it creates these little monsters (my word) that want more, more, more. And, the earlier they get addicted, the harder it is to break them of it, down the line, when it’s far more detrimental. She told us about so many of her families with tweens that are in real trouble and she spoke of suicide and teens, saying there’s a direct link to technology.

That was enough for us. Hope it’s a wake up call for you too.

The journey continues…




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