I CAN HANDLE THIS
This month I spent three Thursday afternoons doing one of my favourite things; watching Cindy Smolkin from Connected Parenting lead a session from our “mini mindfulness” program with the FFCA Nursery groups. The topic: flexibility. Cindy held up a ruler and a hair scrunchie and introduced the kids to the concept of flexibility by showing them the difference between the two items (the ruler is hard and “stuck” and the scrunchie is stretchy and “flexible”). She then gave them different scenarios and asked the children to decide whether she was being “flexible” or “stuck.”
It sounded like this.
“I have a toy and my friend wants it and I don’t want to give it to them”- Am I being flexible or stuck? STUCK they yelled!
“I am playing with friends and they want to play trains and I want to play dolls. I feel sad but agree to play trains”- Am I being flexible or stuck? FLEXIBLE they yelled!
They got it.
Then Cindy broke the cold hard truth to them. “Boys and girls” she said, “while the scrunchie stretches easily, it is actually NOT EASY to be flexible.” In fact, she told them, it can be really hard to be flexible. But, she said, “I am going to teach you four magical words that will help make being flexible easier for you.”
“I CAN HANDLE THIS”
She made them repeat it out loud as a class over and over. They were yelling and cheering, “I CAN HANDLE THIS, I CAN HANDLE THIS, I CAN HANDLE THIS!”
It was so awesome. I love Cindy and I love watching her teach our FFCA kids learn to be mindful and resilient.
If only life was that simple. If only we could yell and cheer “I can handle this” and then the flexibility would just flow out of all of us and our kids. In my previous posts, I have written about how Noah and I both struggle when faced with adversity, so it should not come as a surprise to learn that part of the reason that Noah and I struggle to feel resilient, is because we are both naturally inflexible and quite rigid.
But here is the thing. It is my own inflexibility and propensity towards rigidity that motivates me to want to teach Noah so life can be a little bit easier for him. I see him struggle and I know what that feels like. What continues to motivate me is the change I see in Noah from the strategies we are using with him. It is working and that is SO empowering.
When I started on my Connected Parenting journey 3 years ago, we knew enough about Noah to know he was not a ‘go with the flow’ kind of kid and he (and our family) was controlled by his emotions. 3 years later, we are in a way more flexible place.
So, how did we get here? How did this totally inflexible, rigid Alisa learn to parent from a place of flexibility? What does helping Noah develop his flexibility muscle look like?
Well, let’s take extra-curricular activities for example. Over the past couple of years, Noah has done basketball, T-Ball, swimming and all very successfully. But, for some reason, this past September, Noah decided he wasn’t interested in anything. He loves his swimming lessons, so that was an easy sell, but I was hoping that he would do something else. NOPE. He refused. He wouldn’t bend, he wouldn’t stretch. It was a hard NO. Cindy advised me not to push it for now but that eventually I had to come up with a plan.
I knew what I had to do, but I also knew it was going to be A LOT of work.
I decided to start talking to him, slowly, about “being flexible and open to new things” but just talking about it, that was all. At first, every time I said anything, he got mad, but I persisted. All
I would say is “I want you to start opening your brain up to the idea of being flexible and trying an activity in January.” Flexibility is a word we use all the time, like honestly at least twice a day. I try to never miss an opportunity to say, “I love how flexible you just were” or “that must feel so cool that you used all your flexibility” or “Noah, we are going to play with your cousins so start prepping your brain to be a flexible friend.” We talk about how our “feelings” can be “flexible” and how our brain NEEDS to be flexible. Cindy calls this “mirroring praise.”
Mirroring praise is when you attach traits to praise so that kids can understand WHAT they did well, not just that they “did a great job!!!!” For example, traits, like flexible, patient, kind, brave etc. Mirroring praise gives our kids the opportunity to learn more than “you did a great job.” Praising them with traits allows them to learn and remember what it felt like to be patient or flexible or brave (or whatever trait you attach). If you do it often enough, your child will start to remember what it felt like to be brave, patient, or flexible and with your help reminding them, they will be motivated and feel safe to do it again, because they know they remember that it turned out OK and therefore they can handle it (I will explain more about this in a minute).
Back to Noah.
For most of September he would barely tolerate me talking to him about it (I would do it once a week for 5 seconds). By October, he was letting me say it to him, but he wasn’t agreeing to anything. Then, one day in November, he just randomly said “OK, I will try something!”
We ended up agreeing on a trial Karate class with his best friend and he was pumped. I thought we were great, I thought we had pushed through. January came and we were in the car on our way to Karate class. Noah started to whimper. I mirrored like crazy, I empathized, I validated, but by the time we pulled into the parking lot, he was not calm. Here came the very interesting part. In that moment, I got fed up, and in my not so finest moment turned around and yelled, “Fine Noah, do you just want to go home?” He looked at me and said (very calmly), “I don’t want to go home Ima- I am just nervous.” And that is my Noah Bear. Terrified to do what most kids can do easily but so in tune with his 6-year-old self that he knew he was going to go, he just needed to freak out a little. So, I turned around, apologized and from there we got right back into the swing of things. I pulled out my go to line. “Do you know how I know that you can handle this? I know because the first time you did T-Ball you were nervous and then you used all your courage and you loved it. And the first time you tried basketball you were nervous and again, you loved it!” And so on and so on. Our whole walk from the car to the karate place was calm and I knew my words were reminding his brain what it felt like to be courageous and flexible because he could relate it to the experience and remember what it felt like to enjoy t-ball and basketball after being nervous about trying them.
He loved karate and we signed up instantly for every Thursday. We did it. It only took 4 months
(and I used ALL my patience).
But what about in his regular day to day life? Learning to be flexible isn’t just about trying new things. Noah’s “inflexibility” comes out in different ways in his regular day to day routine and we have learned to manage his propensity towards rigidity. Let’s use sleep as an example. Noah loves to sleep and generally speaking is a great sleeper, BUT Noah HAS TO:
1. Sleep on his right side and right at the edge of his bed
2. He needs his noise machine on with a specific sound
3. His door must be closed
4. He needs a flashlight, water bottle and Kleenex on his nightstand.
When we are at home, his “I HAVE TO” list is okay. It helps him and he sleeps really well, so we go with it. But what about when we aren’t at home? Like sharing a room with his cousins at the Cottage and in Florida? Or with his brother at Baba and Zaida’s house? Or in various homes in Ireland? At any given time, there could be 3 other noise machines on at the same time, or no noise machines at all. There could be night lights on, doors open, who knows, the options are endless! We have taught him that he just has to be FLEXIBLE. And he is because we are teaching him that he can handle it. For example, this past trip to Ireland over the winter break, Noah got upset that he couldn’t have his noise machine when sharing a room with his cousins. He was really upset, and I was bracing for a meltdown, but it never materialized. I used my, “Noah, you know how I know you can sleep without your noise machine? Because in the summer when you were here with your cousins you didn’t have your noise machine and you were totally fine.” He looked at me and said, “oh yeah, that is right.” He remembered his flexibility and that it worked for him and then he was good! We use this language with him every day, we weave it in everywhere, and it honestly works.
3 years ago, Cindy opened our eyes to how important it was for us to ensure that we help Noah develop his neuropathway to tolerate adversity. She helped us see that we had to work hard at helping him build that coping muscle and that to do that we had to help him learn to be and feel flexible. That was the start of our parenting journey with “flexibility.” I can without a shadow of a doubt tell you that by simply weaving that word into the fabric of our home and making an effort to praise his flexible efforts, he has not only grown flexible, but he has become self-aware of the changes in him. Noah understands that it is hard for him to be flexible, but he also understands how good he feels when he finds his “flexibility” and pushes through.
So, if you are reading this and thinking, how do I do this at home? I want to help my child build that muscle. Here is advice from a very inflexible mom who is desperately trying to raise flexible and resilient children. Start incorporating “flexibility” into your daily language and I promise you, it will come.
For example, if you have kids close in age who fight over toys, the next time your older one does the smallest thing to bend and share with the little one, use mirroring praise. It would sound something like:
“I love how flexible you were with your toys and that you were able to share with your brother. That must feel awesome to be such a flexible brother.”
To build on that, the next time your older one freaks out and doesn’t want to share, you can remind them of the last time they shared and that they survived! This would sound something like.
“This is so hard to have to share, but do you know how I know you can handle this? I know because the last time you were flexible with your brother you were OK and played so happily afterwards.”
Eventually, if you do this enough, their brain will start to remember and start to get the message. They will learn to remember that they can handle being flexible.
It is as easy as that and the best part is, it works. You have to do it a lot and you have to find the patience to dig deep when most of the time all want to do is just yell and throw all their toys out
(and don’t worry, you CAN still do that, we are all only human).
BUT, once you see the changes in you and your child, you will be motivated to keep going. I promise you it works.
My Noah Bear is all the proof I need.