Posted in family life

three year old fashion

Aubade has always had her own unique fashion sense – and strong opinions about it! Recently, she found a pair of kids’ reading glasses (they used to be Rondel’s) and added them to her wardrobe.

Aubade sitting on a swing in a white dress, striped purple pants, and large red-framed glasses

It makes me so happy when she comes up with new (sometimes crazy) outfits 🙂 and I hope she never outgrows the confidence and flair that foster those choices!

Posted in family life, sqt, Uncategorized

{sqt} – because my kids are weird and wonderful

  1. No one is ever interested if I offer to read them a book, but if I sit down on the couch and start reading aloud I am covered in children within two minutes.
  2. Aubade currently refuses to be called anything except her first name. Literally. To the extent that she takes offense at being called beautiful, or helpful, or big, or little, or tough, or silly. I’ll say, “I love you little girl!” and she’ll reply, “I’m not a little girl, I’m an Aubade!” The exception is if she’s playing a pretend game, in which case she is usually a little alligator and objects to being called anything other than that…
Aubade twirling in a blue dress with a pink lei around her head and a ponytail sticking up
  1. Everything is fair game to become part of a Solar System. Countless rocks have been pressed into service as various planets; all the balls and balloons in the house have been used multiple times; and Limerick and I even built a version using pattern blocks the other day. The most amusing was when we went to the grocery store and the boys planned out a whole Solar System using the different varieties of pumpkin in the fall display… I think they were inspired by the pumpkin that was so big they could have curled up inside it, which made a rather stunning Sun 🙂
Mercury is the single hexagon block on the far left, followed by the other seven planets in order. The tiny green triangle in between Mars and Jupiter is the dwarf planet Ceres.
  1. If I clean up the brain flakes, so all three jars are full and there are no more random pieces lying around on the floors, the kids will pounce upon them like a tiger on its prey and immediately dump them all back out and begin building as if the world contained nothing else. They usually stay cleaned up for no more than ten minutes, and that’s if I attempt to hide them…
  2. Aubade has quite a unique fashion sense. This morning she was wearing an overall dress with no shirt underneath but a skirt instead. The other day I came home from work to find her dressed in pants and a t-shirt with a tunic tank top and shorts layered over it. She also is very adamant about wearing socks and usually has at least six out around the house at any one time (she likes to layer the socks, too, on her hands and her feet).
Slightly blurry image of Aubade in pink heart pants, orange monster shorts, pink t-shirt, and sparkly navy tank, with a pink tiara on her head and a purple wild tied around her ankle. She never holds still for pictures…
  1. Rondel must be approaching some sort of growth spurt, because he is eating ridiculous amounts of food. The other day I roasted four medium potatoes and four large carrots and he ate all of them, plus two pieces of toast, just for breakfast. Another day I made a batch of waffles (whole grains, loaded with carrots, an extra egg for more protein) and he ate four of them (I was full after two, for comparison). And he tells me all day long that he is hungry. I’m starting to be nervous about how much he’ll be able to eat as a teenager!
  2. Limerick asked me, after seeing a selfie my mom took with Rondel when he was a baby, how she could take the picture and be in it at the same time. This was the result. Pretty much sums up how good life is with these crazy awesome kids 🙂
Limerick hugely smiling with his mouth open wide and his eyes shut tight, leaning on my shoulder.
Posted in family life

dealing with childhood anxiety

When a parent realizes their child is struggling with anxiety, there is most likely going to be both sadness and relief: because while no one wants someone they love to live with high levels of anxiety, knowledge is much more helpful than ignorance.

With young children who don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings verbally, it can be difficult to correctly read their behavior to see through to the underlying anxiety. Maybe a child is just sensitive, or reserved, or organized – in moderation, those are all perfectly normal personality traits, after all, and can appear superficially similar to symptoms of anxiety. And a lot of parents just want their kids to be normal and healthy and happy, and don’t want to admit that something might be wrong. But if the anxiety is there and not seen, it can worsen until the symptoms spiral out of control, into extreme clinginess, or irrational aggression, or refusal to engage in everyday activities. (Here is a helpful list of potential signs of anxiety in very young children ).

With Limerick, I had concerns about potential anxiety issues from before he was two years old. He would notice when lightbulbs were blown (say, at a restaurant or at my parents’ house) and not be able to relax until they were fixed (so he’d have trouble eating if we were out, and would pester my dad about it until he replaced the broken bulb if we were at their house) – and that could just be a desire for things to be the way they ought to be, or it could be more. He always wanted me to sleep with him, and would act very scared if I were not there or if the room were too dark – which is fairly normal at two, but became less so as he grew. While Rondel and Aubade would want to go places, even if just to run errands, Limerick wanted to stay in the house – and I thought, maybe he is just a homebody and a quiet kid. But I knew enough to keep my eyes open, at least.

And then recently Limerick started struggling in class at church, needing help to stay focused and calm (tracing numbers on a sensory pillow helped, but he would tell the teachers he just wanted me). At home, I noticed in increase in angry and aggressive behavior: angry words, threatening gestures, and actual scratching, kicking, and even biting – and Limerick was never a biter, even as a baby. Talking to him about anger didn’t help the way it has helped Rondel, and I gradually realized that his problem didn’t lie in controlling anger, but in controlling anxiety. His brain, for whatever reason, felt threatened and unsafe, and he reacted with out-of-control aggressive behavior that looked angry from the outside.

Now that I realize what’s actually going on, I have a lot more hope that I’ll be able to help Limerick, both to reduce the behavior and to help him stabilize and calm down internally. It’s already started to be helpful, actually, just in the past few days, to have a more accurate perspective and a different toolbox of strategies to try 🙂 When Rondel or Aubade get angry or want to state their opinions, they get loud, and Limerick reacts quickly and violently, so I’ve been stepping in right away, telling Limerick that he’s safe, giving him words to use to talk through the interaction, and coaching his siblings on how they can help defuse the situation as well (mostly be speaking more quietly, and by shutting up long enough to hear what Limerick is trying to say to them). When we needed to go to the grocery store and Limerick was starting to get physical with his refusal, I took some time to talk with him and found out that the store is pretty overstimulating for him (noise, bright light, undefined length of time, etc.), and I let him bring the iPad so he could focus on his current special interest (the Solar System!) when things felt overwhelming. It was the most peaceful errand we’d had in a while.

I found this website to be quite helpful with regards to anxiety-reducing strategies – it’s where I got the idea to use his love for the Solar System to help counteract the anxiety caused by the grocery store, actually! I appreciate that it has multiple ideas, since it can be unhelpful to be too dependent on a single coping mechanism and since some strategies are not ideal for certain situations.

I’m not surprised that at least one of my children has anxiety to the point that it interferes with their everyday life – it’s a pretty common thing in my family. But I am hopeful that by identifying it so early in Limerick’s life, we can help make sure that the neural pathways to address, calm, and stabilize are just as tightly woven into his brain as the pathway of anxiety. It’s much harder to rewire those networks after years of traveling down them in every tense or emotional moment, when you don’t realize the anxiety is there until after you’ve spent your whole childhood being controlled by it. Limerick doesn’t have to take that road, because his anxiety is no longer a hidden or ignored reality, but a present issue that he can learn to cope with in healthy ways from the beginning.

Posted in family life, sqt, wwlw

{sqt} – because limerick loves numbers

If you ask him, Limerick will tell you that his favorite thing in the whole world is numbers. More than milk, more than cookies, more than hugs – numbers are the best. So I thought I would capture seven ways he shows that love for this week’s {SQT}! Join Kelly for the rest of the linkup 🙂

  1. Limerick’s favorite numbers of all are 1, 11, 111, and so on – anything that is all 1’s. So the other day as we were skip-counting back and forth together the way we do, he decided we should count by 11. When he got to 1111 (and he was the one who got to say it!), he was so happy that he stood up on his chair and clapped his hands together while laughing for joy.
  2. This past week he’s been asking me to make number coloring pages for him, where I’ll draw the outlines of numbers on a page and he’ll color them in. Well, for one of those pages, he decided the best way to color them in would be to fill all the little spaces with smaller versions of the number he was coloring – very meta 🙂

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    Limerick’s coloring page – don’t be too critical of his handwriting! He is only 4 after all 🙂

  3. In addition to coloring numbers, Limerick likes me to make skip-counting number boards for him – this week alone we’ve made one that counted by 499, one that counted by 999, one that counted by 4, and one that counted by 1 but had all the multiples of 3 drawn in a different color. After a board is made we’ll play a game with it once or twice but then it is on to the next one! I sometimes think he just likes watching the numbers appear on the paper as I write them…
  4. Speaking of watching numbers, Limerick’s favorite book, You Can Count On Monsters by Richard Schwartz, gives him plenty of chances to do just that. He will sit for hours poring over every page of the book, noticing how the focal number of each page breaks down into its factors and figuring out how the accompanying monster illustration incorporates those factors (or the number itself, if it is prime). He’s been through it at least three times this week, taking 2-3 hours each time, and it doesn’t seem to be growing old yet.countonmonsters
  5. I pulled out a math workbook for Limerick this week also, thinking he might be interested, and so far he has just been turning the pages looking at all the numbers and math problems and shapes. He isn’t interested in writing anything down, but when I ask him about any of the problems he knows the answer instantly, or knows how to figure it out. There are some fractions later in the book that would be more of a challenge for him, though, so maybe that will catch his attention eventually. It’s a bit of a tightrope balancing between guiding him towards new information and allowing him the joy of freely exploring numbers without pushing or interfering.
  6. I did, however, get to explain different base systems to him this week! I just sat down at the table and started counting in hexadecimal on a piece of paper, and he glanced over and was immediately intrigued. We discussed what place value means in the context of the various base systems, and ended up writing out 1-32 in decimal, hexadecimal, binary, and base 6. I think binary was his favorite because there were so many 1’s and the numbers got long so quickly!
  7. One other fun book we’ve read through a few times (though not as recently) is Bedtime Math by Laura Overdeck. It’s been a great introduction to the application of numbers, and a challenge for Limerick to translate the words into the more familiar arithmetic. He’s actually quite good at tracking along with the question as I read it, deciphering the logical connections, and doing the math in his head – he can for most of the stories do even the most difficult problem on the page already!

All in all, I just have to echo Limerick and say that he really does love numbers the best 🙂 And he has, honestly, since he was 18 months old and would sit on the driveway drawing them in wide circles around himself until he was familiar with each one, and since he was 2 years old and would count the bites remaining on his plate at dinner and practice subtracting them as he ate. I’m looking forward to watching this love continue to grow with him in the years to come!

Posted in family life, musings

social learning through play

When I first read Peter Gray’s Free to Learn a couple years ago, I was struck by his descriptions of young children playing together. In the interactions he transcribed, these children were negotiating social hierarchies, defining relationships, experimenting with emotional expression and response, making small talk, and learning to understand the thoughts and feelings of other individuals – all through the context of undirected, independent, imaginative play with each other.

At the time I was both impressed and discouraged: impressed at the ability of the human mind to use pretend play as a means of acquiring important social skills, and discouraged at the thought that I hadn’t yet seen my son engage in pretend play with another child in that way. He could parallel play with his baby brother, and that was about it; other children overwhelmed and even frightened him.

But lately I have watched him playing with Limerick, roaring and yelling and screaming at each other, and when I cautiously peek around the corner they quickly assure me that it’s all part of the game, and their characters are angry, not actually them. Their pretend animals ask each other if they can come in, or share space, or help with something difficult. The boys ask each other, outside of the game, about what they are each comfortable with and what the other one’s preference would be for the kind of game they play, back and forth until they reach a compromise.

I have watched him playing with Aubade, laughing and wrestling and generally being silly, until suddenly she pretends to be sad with a pouty frown and a slump of her shoulders, proclaiming that she is sad, and he instantly changes his mood to match her emotional expression, curling up next to her to give her snuggles until she decides she is happy again.

While his understanding of other people’s emotions may not be as intuitive, and while social norms and niceties may always be more of a second language, he still has the innate desire to connect and belong with others. And so with the people he loves, he works hard to understand them, to compromise with them, to adapt to their wants and feelings. We’ve done a lot of “play coaching” with him and his siblings over the years, to get to this point, but now, every time I see him bend and adjust, every time I hear him ask what his siblings would rather do instead of demanding things go his way, I am so encouraged by how much he has learned, and by how much he can do without any adult around reminding him. Those hours of play have really been effective in helping him pick up and hone his budding social skills – and I have no doubt they will continue to be.

Posted in sqt

{sqt} – emotional self-regulation

In our house, we have big emotions.

It’s not too surprising, all things considered. Paul likes to attribute my temper to my “Cuban spice” (which is always highly embarrassing), and I tend to believe it is related to my autism (see an amazing article here which could have been written by me if only I were that insightful and eloquent), but wherever it originates from it comes on quickly and lasts indefinitely (forever really, unless I put in a lot of mental and emotional effort). Rondel is similar – flaring up like a match at an unexpected change or a trivial argument or finding out he was wrong about something he thought was a fact – although I’m not yet sure if he will be a grudge-holder like I was as a child. Limerick is constantly pushing himself, and will break down in frustration if he can’t accomplish something he feels he should be able to do. Aubade still uses shrieks and screams to communicate most of her (very strong) opinions and feelings, since she’s only just starting to take off verbally.

So right now, while academics are important and interesting and fun, I feel that emotional intelligence and self-regulation are also a very important area of emphasis for us. It may not come naturally for most of us in this household, but as I have learned over the years it is very helpful in life overall, so it’s something we’re consciously working on together: and these are some of the ways we’re doing that.

  1. Affectionate Physical Touch (e.g., hugs, snuggles, and read-alouds): Little kids are very physical creatures, and so making sure we have lots of time snuggled up together reading books, or letting them lounge on top of me while we’re playing with toys, or making a comforting hug the priority in a meltdown situation, is helpful in a number of ways. It acts as a preventative, helping keep emotional systems running smoothly so that crises are less likely to occur; and it acts as a balm, soothing and quieting the overwhelmed nervous system so that the rational brain can regain control and come up with a solution to the triggering problem. All three kids will come to me throughout the day for a hug when they are feeling sad, overwhelmed, or disconnected.
  2. Physical Play (e.g., running, wrestling, jumping on the trampoline): Going back to the physicality of children – but also appealing to research on the value of exercise for emotional health – wild, active physical play is also very helpful for learning to handle big emotions. Especially on days when everyone is struggling with irritability, and small triggers are escalating into large events, running and wrestling together seems to help us all shake off the mood fog and reconnect with each other in a positive way. So far this has been something I’ve had to initiate, as the kids seem to forget how good it feels to be active when they are grumpy and quarrelsome, but I’m hoping that as they grow they’ll be able to choose it on their own more often, as their bodies let them know they need it.
  3. Bodily Needs (sleep, food, water, sensory peace): This is kind of a broad one, but basically it is hard for a brain, especially a young developing one, to focus on managing emotional responses when a more urgent physical need is unmet. So meltdowns tend to happen more frequently when people are tired or hungry, or in overstimulating environments (crowds, loud noises, unpredictability, flashing lights, information overload, uncomfortable clothes, etc.). There are some easy physical ways to reduce the burden on your brain in these situations, such as never leaving home without snacks and water bottles, and never forcing yourself or your children to stay in an environment that is stressful and uncomfortable. For example, I let Rondel wear T-shirts and athletic shorts to church and take off his shoes in class, and the church has noise-reducing headphones that he can wear if the noise is bothering him. These accommodations reduce the amount of negative input his brain is dealing with, which in turn enables him to use more energy on social and emotional functions.
  4. Mindfulness: Ok, but sometimes you can’t prevent the emotions or avoid the triggering situation, and you still have to learn how to control your own reaction to the event. This can be so hard when your emotional reactions tend to hit you like a punch in the stomach with no prior warning… but what I have found to be very helpful for me is simple mindfulness practice. When I am present in the current moment and aware of my body, I can begin to detect clues that my negative emotions are building up, and try to take steps to defuse them before they explode. I can choose to close my eyes, breath deeply, and focus on the breathing for a few seconds, letting my diaphragm trigger my vagus nerve to calm my body, mentally stepping away from the situation I can’t truly leave in the moment, giving myself a space to think and decide how I want to react before the words leave my mouth. I don’t think my kids have quite figured out how to take deep breaths yet, but we’ve worked on taking that space before reacting (in real time with conflict situations) and it was helpful for them as well.
  5. Mediation and Modeling: Since my kids are still so young, I find myself stepping in when arguments begin to escalate into more emotional conflicts. My goal in these moments is not to solve their conflict but to walk them through the process of resolving it themselves. I hug them, I listen to each one of them tell me what is going on from their perspective, and I attempt to rephrase the situation so that they can both agree that I understand (my initial understanding is often incomplete, and they will correct my phrasing until they are satisfied I understand). Then I will ask each of them in turn what idea they might have for moving on from the conflict, and help them come up with ideas if necessary until they can both agree on one. Sometimes they are able to go through this process independently, and I am so, so proud of them when they do!
  6. Peacemakers Cards/Time-in Toolkit from Generation Mindful: This tool for emotional development has been more than worth the cost for us. Currently, we primarily use the peacemakers cards and the accompanying poster and stickers. I will hold out the deck of cards and let the boys take turns choosing ones, and we’ll spend time talking together about what the cards say: phrases such as “I am kind,” or “I stick with things and get things done,” or “I am adaptable – let’s move and dance!”

    peacemakers_dolphin_cards_amazon_photo_2017_1024x1024
    The “Peace Dolphin” overview card, with the five individual cards from the poster. We recently did Peacemakers after a big fight and randomly pulled three dolphin cards in a row… they were extremely helpful in processing the event, handling the emotions, and planning for the future.

    We talk about ways the boys have recently lived out those phrases, or times when we saw examples of it in a book we love, or situations where it might be challenging to embody them. For card with an action, like the last one in the list above, we’ll get up and act it out (it’s always fun to start silly dancing around the bedroom, after all!). I realize this may sound dull but the boys ask me if we can do Peacemakers cards on a regular basis, and it has led to some great conversations. he other poster in the toolkit has a lot of suggested strategies for calming down in emotional crisis, as well as a few charts representing different feelings in comparison to each other, and those have been helpful as well. Sometimes it’s hard to think of a coping strategy in the moment, so having the visualization on hand can be useful.

  7. Prayer: Of course prayer. Always prayer. Prayer for the fruits of the Spirit in my life each day. Prayers for peace, almost as a mantra, over and over again in the worst times. I remember when Limerick was little and I’d be hit by a wave of anxiety or stress that I would pray “Father, give me peace. Jesus, give me peace. Holy Spirit, give me peace.” Simple enough to repeat when I had no head space for words or complex thoughts, powerful in its reminder to me of the Trinity in all His love and presence. Prayer for connection with my Father, just as important for me emotionally and spiritually as is my young children’s connection to me and Paul is for them. Prayer to the saints,to have their community and support with me when things are too overwhelming for me on my own. Prayer to Mary, the mother of the church, who loves me and my children and helps me to be a better mother to them. Scripted prayers when I’m feeling disconnected and my own words won’t flow; spontaneous prayers when my heart is crying or rejoicing. Emotional regulation is hard for me, and probably always will be – I can never seem to find the middle ground between keeping everything in and letting everything out! But as in every other area of life, God in His grace is sufficient in my weakness: loving me as I am and helping me to grow.

This doesn’t even go into things like self-care and quiet time and community, which are all so helpful for lowering one’s negative emotional baseline and raising one’s trigger threshold – there are so many ways to help develop these skills and create a protective buffer around areas of weakness to keep them from causing damage and regrets. But these seven are some that I found particularly valuable for our family in this season of life, and I hope that they are helpful for you as well!

I’m linking up with This Ain’t the Lyceum today, so head over and read some of the other Quick Takes!

What are some strategies you use for keeping your emotions from getting out of control? What helps you the most in moments of overload or anger?

Posted in family life

an oasis in the desert

I took my children to the lake last Thursday.

Yes, even here in the desert we have lakes! They are mostly manmade and act as water reservoirs… but they also serve as beautiful oases, especially when temperatures start rising.

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My sister-in-law joined us for a couple hours with her four kids, which was especially good when Limerick got in too deep and started panicking and needed me – that extra pair of adult eyes and hands makes a big difference sometimes. It was also fun for us just to spend time with them! But we stayed after they needed to leave and it was equally wonderful in different ways.

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I mentioned our day trip to someone and they instantly reacted with the words, “what a chore!”

I still haven’t been able to figure it out.

It isn’t a chore to spend time outside, in the natural unbuilt environment, enjoying the beauty of creation. In fact, it’s something I’m constantly striving to do more often! I want my children to love and respect the natural world, to feel connected to it and desire to protect and preserve it; they won’t if they are never exposed to it. And we were so lucky on this particular day to be visited by a herd of wild horses. I mean, how often do you get to see large wild animals like that? We were all in awe – even Aubade kept pointing and exclaiming in wonder as they moved through the water.

It isn’t a chore to take my children out on an excursion – at least not this type of outing. Rondel and I both struggle in crowded indoor environments, or in highly structured populated activities, because of the constant sensory bombardment and social expectations. Limerick and Aubade are both still noisy constantly-moving little people (as they should be!). So when we’re outside, away from the artificial stimuli and the obscure social norms of the city, free to make the sounds we want to make and move our bodies in comfortable ways without bothering anyone, it is incredibly relaxing and refreshing.

It isn’t a chore to be with my children, to let go of my own pursuits and just focus on them for an afternoon, enjoying the small details of life with them. They remind me how exciting a lake bed scattered with shells can be; they delight my heart with their surprised laughter at things that are now old and familiar to me. After you’ve been to the beach a few times, you anticipate the way the waves knock into you; when you’re only 1 or 3 or 4, each new wave comes as a surprise and a gift.

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And it certainly wasn’t a chore to watch Rondel and Limerick playing together for hours, intent on their exploration of this new world, sharing it with each other as best friends do. On the contrary, it was a gift for me as a parent to see my children growing and deepening in their relationship with each other in such a natural and unforced way.

I know these days are fleeting. For only these few years will I have such a strong influence on their lives, and such a deep connection; I don’t want them to stay little forever, but I do want to live these years with intentionality. Of course it takes a bit of planning and organization to take three small children to the lake for the afternoon. But the riches all of us reap as a result far more than outweigh that work of preparation. For us, places like this are more than just real and physical oases in the desert: they are also oases of renewal for our souls.