Now that Andrew and I have decided that we need to spend more time together (we’re always together but we need a wee bit time together not with Blitzen), we’ve been bringing the backups and friends and babysitters more aggressively into the routine. Here is a sample of the absurdly long email that I have sent to a few people in preparation for their alone time with Blitzen. I customize the first paragraph because I care.
Dear Village Member,
Customized greeting and confirmation of upcoming babysitting assigment.
I think that Blitzen struggles most with a few items that are linked to one another:
2) Surprise or unexpected outcomes
3) Criticism (real or perceived)
4) Feeling that she is not being heard/understood/listened to
On all of this, it is so important to remember that Blitzen has been conditioned over the past nine years to be on perpetual offense. She very much operates in a world where it is better to get mad and create the chaos then to risk being surprised and hurt by the anger and chaos of others. And much of this is about neurological response – her brain is very actively triggering the fight or flight response many times every day. The tricky thing about that nifty evolutionary adaptation, is that once the brain triggers it, it kind of shuts down and stops thinking. You see the lion, the brain says – oh no, lion, grab that stick to hit the lion and then RUN like hell. Then the brain goes offline so you won’t stand there debating with yourself – maybe it is a nice lion, perhaps it wants to be friends or would prefer to chase that zebra. By the time you think all that, you are lion dinner. So sometimes (not always) Blitzen gets a little ‘outside herself’ in these moments and is just moving through the paces of fight / flight and it takes some time for her to come back down.
There are several tricks that we use to help Blitzen move through the day. One, we plan carefully and reiterate what will come next several times over the course of the day. This is why we have a schedule. If Blitzen doesn’t want to do something (go to the library or the park or whatever) we simply reiterate that it is on the schedule so we must follow through but welcome her input on how to make it more fun and/or interesting. An example would be if we have library and park on the schedule back to back, we could flip them – do park first, say we will be at the park for exactly 30 minutes and then we must go to the library.
Transitions are hard and we allow lots of time for them to occur. I might ask Blitzen to clear her plate and it could take several minutes for it to happen. I make myself wait at least 1 full minute before asking her again. I often observe that she is doing something else, comment on it and then ask her to return to the task at hand “I see you are looking at that cool catalogue, you can look at the next page, then we’ll both look at it together during activity time. Would you please come remove your dinner plate?”
She is also often slow to leave the house or move on to the next thing – if she wants to comb her hair or change her outfit or whatever before we go to the park, that is ok with us. We let those things just play out – time has an all new and much more fluid meaning since we met Blitzen. There are very few things that need to happen right this very minute.
Criticism / no – we try not to say ‘no’ the word very often. So instead of – no, you may not look at the book now. We try to say ‘let’s look at the book at this time’ or ‘we have homework on the schedule right now but I am excited to do that with you at playtime’. Bltizen also sees criticism where there is none. We never bother nagging her to comb her hair or button up her coat or tie her shoes – we might observe ‘it is chilly, do you need help buttoning your coat?’ she can say yes or no or not button it all.
Blitzen is not always clear when expressing herself verbally. We have a few tricks – we ask her to sit with us or we kneel down in front of her so that we can see her face and eyes. We ask her to look at us directly. If we don’t understand, we just admit it. ‘I need a little more help, I am trying but I don’t understand exactly what you mean’. Lastly, we try to resist the urge to argue with Blitzen when she is being irrational. She’ll say ‘you hate me, you always hated me. You only love Andrew.’ And I might respond ‘I hear you and I am sorry you feel that way. What would you like me to do differently?’ She will also say things like ‘get away from me’ or ‘leave me alone’ — she never means this literally but is having difficulty expressing what she really means to say like ‘I am confused, I can’t talk right now, I need to recover and I need a little bit of space to do it’ or ‘I am hungry and need to eat an orange’. We have started making her clarify and ask her – do you really want me to leave the room or are you trying to say something else right now?
If she gets mad, she may yell, that is ok. She may throw stuff, also ok as long it won’t hurt anyone or damage anything (her favorite item to toss around is the mail). She may stomp off to her room and slam the door. She may storm out of the apartment – this is not our favorite but if we can still see her, we let it play itself out. She generally recovers herself within 5 or 10 minutes if we don’t push her. So we don’t chase her or argue with her crazy claims that we got a foster kid just so we could have guinea pigs or that everyone on the planet hates her because deep down she is a mermaid – we just actively listen and try really really hard not to react.
Physical activity is good – when in doubt, try expending some amount of physical energy.
All that said, self-preservation is key. If you need to separate yourself or leave the room, then that is what you need to do.
We are really actively working with Blitzen on responsibility, respect and problem-solving. We are trying to teach her that actions and words have serious consequences even when you are angry or upset. We are trying to slowly and methodically unwind and rewire 9 years worth of development of pretty faulty neurological pathways.
And you thought that you were just coming over to play checkers. Thanks for helping us out.