Thursday, June 20, 2013

Empathy: Part 3

Teaching Empathy:  Transitioning knowledge of Feelings to Self, Animals, and Others
 As we have journeyed down the path to healing from attachment and trauma issues I have noticed my sons development follows a pattern.  First he has to understand a concept as it relates to himself.  Then he can relate that concept to animals.  Then comes others outside of the family.  Than finally family members or others who are close to him.  Following this circle of relating concepts we began with working on understanding empathy as it related to him.  Now that he had developed a "feeling" vocabulary and seemed to understand the concept of different emotions, we began pointing out how those feelings and emotions directly related to him.  "You must be so sad that your brother took your toy.  I bet you are feeling really mad and hurt.  What could your brother do to make you feel better?", these types of conversations would happen often pointing out his feelings for him until he was able to identify his feelings and then helping him come up with ways others could make him feel better.  He became very good at identifying what others could do for him!
We have a dog in our house:
(Aren't they adorable!)
Our dog puts up with a lot...and I mean a lot!  With a house full of boys he is subject to the normal tail and ear pulling from toddlers, but adding in the emotional and behavioral issues was something that took a lot of adjustment on my part.  When the boys first arrived I quickly learned I couldn't leave them alone with the dog.  They would kick or push him for no reason at all.  Our dog quickly learned he DID NOT want to be around Matthew and he would walk away any time he entered the room.  As Matthew began understanding feelings he would get upset that the dog wouldn't want to play with him.  I began relating this to Matthew in terms of feelings and empathy. "I bet the dog is scared that you will hurt it like you used to do.  I bet you have broken your trust with the dog.  Remember when your brother took your toy and you didn't want to play with him anymore?!  What kinds of things did your brother do for you to make you feel better? If you were the dog what are some things that would help you earn trust again and make you feel better?"  Matthew slowly began to understand this concept and worked really hard to earn trust with the dog.  He would pet it (with supervision of course) and ask to give him treats.  After a long time the dog began to trust him.  Matthew would be so excited when he would come lay on his lap.  Today Matthew is the first one to point out when someone is not being nice to the dog or may be hurting the dogs feelings, he apologizes when he accidentally trips over him.
As empathy for animals began to develop I noticed an awakening in Matthew, he actually wanted to have friends.  In the past, he hadn't really desired to have friends, he wanted others to play with him but it was more about needing others to play a certain game with him.  He was now expressing a desire to have real friends and questioning why others were "mean" to him. In reality other kids were not being men to him, he just didn't understand what a friend was or how to keep friends.  He has always been fairly good at the initial making friends part; he is fun and energetic.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that he is controlling, bossy, too rough, and way too intense!  So the "friends" he makes usually move on to greener pastures after about 15 minutes.  At first when he would become upset about kids not wanting to play with him I would sugar coat it.  I stopped that pretty quickly, it wasn't helping.  I began to be very truthful with him.  "The kid doesn't want to play with you because you are being bossy and not taking turns.  Remember how you felt when your brother wouldn't take turns with you?  How do you think your friend feels? What do you think you could do to help him feel better?"  We set up situations at home and practiced.  We often had problems when at the playground or home where Matthew would be too rough and hurt another child.  Matthew would push someone down and the child would begin to cry, Matthew would run and hide.  I helped Matthew come up with specific steps to do if you accidentally hurt someone:  Go to the person and ask if they are okay.  Help the child get to me or another parent.  When the child is feeling better tell them you are sorry and ask if they would like to play.  Let them pick what to play. We practiced these steps over and over and over and then one day it clicked.  Not only did it click for when he hurt someone, but he began stopping and helping every crying child get to me or an adult, LOL!  The other parents thought he was the sweetest kid :)  At first it wasn't true empathy, he had been taught a set of steps to follow and he seemed to get attention following them so he kept doing it.  Eventually though "fake it till you make it" seemed to prove true! 
The hardest was making the empathy connection with our family, it is still a work in progress but he is coming along.  Don't get me wrong we still have a lot to do, but I am really pleased with our progress.  For us the key has been talking, talking, and talking some more.  Direct Instruction of what you want your child to do and then practice the situations.  It may seem like they are listening, but at the strangest times they mention something you said and it is clear that they do hear you!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Just another Manic....Tuesday?

Oh if I could transcribe the conversations or rather incoherent ramblings going on over here right now!

"What are you doing?"
"I'm writing in sign language in the air!" While running at full speed, speaking gibberish, waving hands around, hopping from one end of couch to other, starting a puzzle, no stopping puzzle, coloring a picture for the president, no stopping picture, back to jumping, making sandwich, doesn't want the sandwich, giving to dog, playing catch with the dog with imaginary toy, back to writing in the air  etc.

It's been like this all day people, and if the last three years are any indication it will continue for another 3 days with no break for sleep or meals.

Bipolar....the gift that keeps giving!  In our case like clockwork every three months.  So I ask you this:  WHY does this catch me completely off guard and unprepared Every. Single. Time.  

Don't get me wrong, things have vastly improved in the last three years.  When you add bipolar on top of all the trauma and attachment issues it ain't pretty folks.  Manic episodes quickly become violent and the unpredictability of PTSD mixed with paranoia quickly leads to a disaster of epic proportions. 
Our episodes these days are more exhausting for me than anything and they are always followed by a calm, albeit depressed, week to catch up on sleep.  It's the two and a half months afterwards that always get me, they seduce me, it's like a tiny pinhole into another reality.  Right after the mania/depressed episodes you begin to see a glimpse of normal, and as the weeks go on the pinhole gets larger showing you pieces and parts of a life that could be really great.  You begin to think things are really turning around.  You let yourself imagine a play date where you don't have to supervise constantly, maybe you even let your kids play in the back yard alone....and they do great.  You say to yourself, "We've made it, I can finally start to relax!"  

And then out of're helping your kid write sign language in the cursive, cause, well, he says he doesn't know cursive yet and aliens ONLY read cursive sign language in the air....duh!!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Empathy: Part 2

Teaching Empathy:  Identifying Feelings

What struck me in the above definition of "empathy" was the last part 'without having the feelings fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner."  OH how are kids struggle with this, picking up social cues might as well be rocket science. 
When Matthew first came to us we quickly entered the wonderful world of traditional talk therapy, and well I didn't feel we really accomplished much in regards to his attachment and trauma issues, the one thing that each therapist we worked with focused on was identifying feelings.  This was SO essential for Matthew.  The ONLY feeling he knew and understood was MAD!!  Anytime feelings were discussed he would say he was MAD.  In reality all that MAD was really covering up the actual feelings; sadness, frustration, disappointment, guilt and so many more.  In order for our kids to understand the feelings of others they have to first understand and recognize their own feelings!  I realize that this is much easier said then done.  As a former Special Education teacher I had worked with a lot of children who needed direct instruction in recognizing feelings.  I treated recognizing feelings as a skill just like learning your addition facts. AND just like trying to teach addition facts to kids, you HAVE to make it fun!
One of the things Matthew's therapist had was a poster like this:
 He LOVED this poster, so we used it often in many ways :)  I think the silly faces helped him at first, it made it less "real" and more of a game.  We had the poster up in our living room area and in his room.  We would often look at it and point out what we were feeling.  This gradually got us away from "MAD" being the only feeling and it greatly expanded his "feeling" vocabulary.  Many times he was just picking random faces he thought were funny, that was perfectly okay!  Remember the goal right now is to just understand different feelings.  Whatever, he picked we would talk about!  Eventually I began to make him explain why he was feeling that way and he began reflecting more accurate feelings. 
Once he was getting good at identifying his feelings with the faces we began taking pictures of him or collecting pictures from the internet of different feelings to make it more 'real' when identifying feelings.  We played matching games with the funny cartoon pictures and real pictures, we identified situations and what feelings he might feel, we practiced making faces on demand (I would call out a feeling and he would make the face and vice-versa).  It became a fun time for us and made feelings less scary. We talked about feelings ALL. THE. TIME.  I would identify my feelings ALL. THE. TIME.  I would point out feelings on TV shows, movies, friends, etc.  ALL. THE. TIME.
At this point it was just about identifying feelings, what the feelings are, feelings vocabulary, identifying feeling faces in others and himself.  It was not about empathy or how to react to others feelings yet, he had to have the knowledge first!
Next Blog Post we will begin to address making the transition between identifying feelings and applying that knowledge!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Empathy: Part 1



Empathy is something that I often hear fellow trauma mommas struggle with in their children.  We envision our child running to help a sibling who has fallen and skinned their knee or comforting a friend who has been bullied on the playground.  It can be incredibly daunting to instead have a child kick the family dog, to have them call you vicious names, or to sneak out of their room in the middle of the night to be sexually inappropriate with a sibling.  You do what you have to do in your house to create safety, door alarms, line of sight supervision, safety plans, you never thought you would be living like this!  But in a way what is worse than all of that is when you sit down with your child to discuss these behaviors and you are met with a blank stare, a laugh, or a "Can I go watch TV now?"  It can leave you feeling hopeless, what will this child grow up to be, will I someday see him on the news at the center of some horrible event, will they  blame me and say I didn't do enough help my child.  I want to offer you some hope over the next few posts, encourage you to keep going, keep teaching, keep modeling empathy. 

This quote by Oprah Winfrey couldn't be a more perfect representation of the potential our children have for empathy, Our children who suffer with the lasting effect of traumas so horrible and despicable so early in their young lives.  Who better understands pain, abandonment, and disappointment than our children?  Its no surprise that when our children come to us they have no empathy!  Nobody cried for them when they were molested.  Nobody tended to their bruises after they were beat.  No one offered to split their sandwich with them when they had been starved.   Our children missed that window of opportunity in their development to pick up on empathy naturally from their environment, we must now teach it to them directly just like we would teach math or reading. 

According to this article empathy development begins in the womb!  Now throw in a birthmother who drank, did drugs, or neglected her and the baby's health during this time and its just one more reason our kids were set up to fail.  Our kids come to us often significantly behind in many areas, but where they really lack is in emotional development.  Our kids do not understand their own emotions, and they can't recognize emotions in other people if they cant recognize emotions in themselves.  In the next few days I will tell you our story and journey to developing empathy, but until then let me leave you with  picture of my oldest who ran upstairs to get his brother a band aid this week.  Melts. my. heart.

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