Tag Archives: anxiety

The Loss of Confidence

Playing with bubbles and Zomes for math.
Playing with bubbles and Zomes for math.

I didn’t mean to take a several months long blog break. Sorry, y’all.

Did anyone else read about this study? Articles about it ran everywhere over the last few months, though that Wall Street Journal one is one of the more in depth takes. The gist is that parents of middle schoolers are the most depressed, unsure, and stressed. To those of you out there with middle schoolers, it probably comes as no surprise. I used to teach middle school and it makes perfect sense to me, but it still surprised me a little how hard this year has hit me.

Several of the news summaries of the study pointed out that even the most confident parents tend to second guess themselves in the middle school years. Isn’t it a little disconcerting when you fit a profile to such a tee? I don’t always think I’m doing thing right or perfect, but I am usually beyond confident that I’m doing okay and that it’ll all work out. That feeling went out the window over the last few months.

The main source of our struggles have been Mushroom’s anxiety. I’ve written about it before and there’s not some grand new insight I can share. However, it has forced us to change school dramatically and forced me to feel downtrodden and despondent on several occasions as I see him cry and struggle, both emotionally and, as a result, academically as well. When things are going well, he can solve any math problem, spell well enough to not look illiterate, read longer articles and discuss them with intelligence. That mostly went out the window over the last few months.

We’ve switched over to focusing on workbooks for Mushroom, which was painful to me in some ways to hand a child a pile of Evan-Moor and Critical Thinking workbooks and call it proper school, but I think it’s helping to have work that’s beyond straightforward and simple instead of complex projects and open ended discovery based math. Sometimes the biggest challenge is to teach the child you have and not the child you want.

And some things are going really well. BalletBoy is writing up a storm of bizarre crossover fanfiction. They’ve both been flying through a pile of reading about the Mayans and having fun learning about what made the Mayan civilization fall. Mushroom built a cool robot at his makerspace. BalletBoy advanced his level in ballet. They both read and enjoyed The Giver for school and had a bunch of cool conversations about it. Both of them immediately saw the parallels to Plato’s allegory of the cave, which made me feel like they got something out of our fall philosophy study.

And now it’s summer. We keep doing school in summer and Mushroom has maybe maybe turned a corner for now. So while I’m sure that I’ll keep second guessing myself more than ever, things keep moving on with highlights and lowlights. I just have to remember to focus on the positives. I love middle schoolers, really. The fact that it’s a tough time is part of the magic of the age.

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Projects, Part Two… A Tale of Two Kids

So I wrote about how we’re moving to be more project based, but one of the major hitches in this plan has been two kids with radically different approaches to projects.  This is coming about especially for the projects they create for themselves.  Right now, we have a nice long chunk of time in the evening for them to work on projects that they’ve created.

BalletBoy immediately rolls down the hill.  Mushroom hangs back.
BalletBoy immediately rolls down the hill. Mushroom hangs back.

First, I’ve got BalletBoy.  Ever since BalletBoy became my little night owl (if he ever abandons the ballet, I may have redub him Night Owlet on the blog), he has been staying up late to do things.  He has written little books on his iPad, borrowing my keyboard and making illustrations for them on the Scribble Press app.  He has read books and drawn pictures and even sewn things on the sewing machines.  However, mostly he has programmed.  He has become a complete Scratch addict.  So much so that we all had to celebrate Scratch Day like a real holiday with a party.

Here’s a Scratch program he’s especially proud of.  The other night, the Husband came to tell me that BalletBoy fell asleep programming, his hands resting lightly on the keyboard and his head leaned back on the sofa.  The Husband had to remove the computer and carry him to bed.

Basically, when I set BalletBoy loose, he’ll come up with something to do and carry out most of his projects to completion.  He wants to share them with us and wants validation and support, but he doesn’t want us to do anything but play his games, read his stories, and generally praise his effort.  He might be the perfect project kid at the moment.  He wants to do projects, he’s open to some feedback, but he’s very set on doing his own vision.  He works diligently.  He turns out interesting things and doesn’t let himself get stuck in a rut.

Mushroom on the other hand…  Mushroom dreams big with great ideas for projects and ambitious plans.  He imagines elaborate Scratch games, writing screenplays, creating board games, drawing long series of comics, and more.  However, when it comes time to actually carry out his ideas past the initial exploration, it’s a flop.  He can spend hours imagining and planning, but when it’s time to do something, he always pulls back.  Even worse, the more he sees BalletBoy finish, the more he beats himself up and the less he does.  It had gotten to the point that he was wandering around every evening, complaining about being bored, refusing to work on anything, even refusing to dream big anymore.

The root of this is really his anxiety.  I’m not generally an anxious person, but I certainly recognize how anxiety keeps you from finishing things.  I don’t think I finished a single math assignment throughout high school.  If I just left the last problem or two unfinished, I knew it wasn’t really done, and therefore not really a reflection on my math abilities.  That was a pretty silly justification, but I know that’s how I felt.  For Mushroom, he is afraid to fail, which makes him afraid to commit to really doing anything.

If he was content to not finish things for awhile, that would be okay, but he’s clearly suffering and unfulfilled by this state of affairs.  He has always wanted time to himself to do things, but then struggled to figure out what to do with that time.  I worry that if I simply leave him to it and let him be that he will build up a bigger and bigger block about finishing things.  I see this when he doesn’t have an experience for awhile that’s in his anxiety provoking category.  If he doesn’t run across a dog for a couple of months or doesn’t get a chance to be outside on his own for a few weeks thanks to weather, those things become more and more difficult for him.  On the other hand, the more he does them, the easier and more routine they are, usually with minimal anxiety and fuss.

Mushroom and I have been in talks about all this.  He is, after all, an incredibly self-reflective kid.  He agrees that he’d like me to help him carry things out and finish things.  A couple of weeks ago, with him alone in the house for the afternoon, I suggested we finish a project together.  His enthusiasm for the completion of it was ecstatic.  Close your eyes and remember how good it feels to finish things, I told him.  Below is the little movie we made that afternoon (he did most of the camerawork and all the editing and had the vision, I helped with some of the art).

We’re trying out making a list of projects he’d like to do.  It’s a short list.  When he finishes one, he has to take it off the list and also take at least one other project off the list, a project that will never be finished.  The idea is that there’s this list of options, but he knows that some of them will never be completed and some of them will.  So far, this is working and he’s been more productive than before when we’ve tried to list things he’d like to do and it seemed too open ended or too intimidating.  Right now, he’s working mostly on inventing his own candy and trying to finish an online Code Academy course on Javascript.

Coming up next…  Projects for “School”

 

Worn Down

Sorry for the lack of posting lately, dear readers.  I have been seriously down in the dumps.  What has brought this on, you ask?  Some of it, I’m not sure.  Life just has ups and downs.  But some of it is that Mushroom has been extremely trying lately.  And by extremely, I mean some days I don’t know if I want to laugh at him or scream or rip my hair out or just curl up in a ball and cry.

Something I learned a long time ago is that kids bring you their worst when they feel safest and most secure in your love for them.  It’s true when you’re just their teacher and it’s true beyond true when you’re their parent.  It’s such a wicked contradiction, yet makes perfect sense.  Of course a child who feels unconditional love can let out all their demons, all their emotions, all their deep, dark thoughts.

I feel like none of the touchy feely, just give the kids love and respect parenting and teaching philosophies want to admit this terrible truth because it goes against everything that love and respect should do.  The more you love and respect you give, the more chaos a child can bring.

The answer isn’t, of course, less love or respect.  But as Mushroom’s anxiety has risen in the last few months, I’ve had to pull back and draw more boundary lines and push hard against that chaos and angst and tears.  And it’s just wearing me down, folks.  He’s always been a sensitive kid, but something in him has just snapped in the last several months and I am still struggling to keep up.

I want Mushroom to see that he is one of the gentlest, kindest kids I know.  In many ways, he’s the most emotionally intelligent eight year-old I’ve ever met, full of deep thoughts and amazing empathy for others.  I want him to know that he’s brilliant at math and writing.  That of course he’s not perfect, but that doesn’t make him any less amazing and excellent.  I want him to find confidence and resilience, persistence and patience.  I want him to find joy, because when he does, he lights up so brightly.

Some days he has all that and then some.  He pushes through hard math, he writes beautiful narrations, he works on his own projects with joy and cheer.  He goes outside and strays far and wide.  Other days, he is tears and screaming and practically clawing at me full of neediness and fear.  He shakes and won’t catch his breath properly.  He wants to go out, but he’s afraid – afraid of dogs, afraid of people, just afraid of his own shadow.  He wants to finish his math or his writing or reading, but he’s all nerves and tears.  My heart aches for him.  And I never know which kid I’m getting when we start the day.

I try to give him the right tools, to equip him with the skills to fight these battles.  And I am learning, painstakingly, to push him away when he’s in the throes of it and make him fight the battle.  There’s no way to sate those deep, dark fears except to turn away from them, something he has to do on his own.  I do this and hope for the best, hope that I’m doing it right, but never really knowing.

Between Nurture and No-Nonsense

I’ve written here several times about how I feel like finding balance is one of the keys for parenting and homeschooling for me.  I often feel like I’m trying to walk a tightrope line between structure and freedom, indulgence and strictness, and pushing and patience.  The place between these extremes is where I feel like great parenting and healthy kids comes from, even if I don’t always feel like my personal balance is just right.

Lately, I have felt a huge tug between being that nurturing, loving, understanding, cuddle up in my lap mother and being that “shut up and get over yourself” mother.  Both BalletBoy and Mushroom in the last few weeks have pushed me on this in various ways.

With BalletBoy, he has several times gotten himself high up without a clear way down and wanted me to do it for him (an impossible task when he’s over my head).  With Mushroom, as always, it’s schoolwork where he finds himself overwhelmed and on the ledge.

On the one hand, I want to be the patient, loving mother.  I want to be all attachment parenting, no judgments mama.  But sometimes, the more I give, the more they take and the less they actually get any better or make any progress.  It’s as if my helping them down, letting them out of it, easing off the pressure, actually makes them less secure and more upset.  Instead of feeding their confidence, every hug and patient word feeds their fears and anxieties.

So I find myself going the other direction.  I state calmly my support and then…  I ignore.  Or, sometimes, I give some harsh words.  Get yourself down.  Take a deep breath and get over it.  I’ll help you when you stop panicking and let me help.  Until then, I can’t even hear you!

Sometimes it works right away and that’s so validating.  Sometimes, it takes forever.  Eons of my nasty ignoring for a child to calm down and come around.  And then I really wonder if the balance is off.  Where’s that sweet spot between nurture and no-nonsense where a child is both secure and independent and knows how loved he is?

Struggles

A few years ago, someone on a moms list I sometimes read said that the time from the half birthday to the birthday (as in, when your kid is 3 and a half or 10 and a half or whatever) is harder neurologically speaking than the time from the birthday to the half birthday.

HUH?  That’s what I had to say to that.  You’re kidding, right?

Nope.  And the poster pointed me to a few things, such as this sort of dense psychological paper, which talks about how brain development moves in spurts.  It says,

Understanding the growth patterns … requires first addressing a common misconception about development. Most people assume unconsciously that development involves progression along a ladder from one stage to the next. However, children and likewise adults develop not along a ladder but along a web of many strands.

Also,

The first established fact about brain development – of which many scientists and educators remain unaware – is that the brain and its parts generally grow in spurts, as do other body systems. The smooth growth curves shown on pediatric charts work only for averages of many children. Individual children grow in fits and starts.

I’m not an expert about any of this, but both of those statement struck me as so very true.  And, so, as my kids have gotten older, does the idea that the period after the half-birthday usually represents the fits and not the starts.  And why do I bring this up now?  You guessed it, we’re headed toward age 7, but not until September.  In the mean time, this is that half birthday nadir.

When I look back on it, I can honestly say that every single year in July, I start to reach the end of my rope.  Is it the heat?  Is it brain development?  All I know is that I want to throttle at least one of them this time every single year.

Since they’re twins, they usually yin-yang it.  One coasts along while the other one makes me wring my hands.  A few years ago, it was BalletBoy, who threw tantrum after tantrum so epic and embarrassing that I wanted to crawl in a hole and not come out until it was time to send him off to college.  I thought, at the time, that surely this was going to be our new life.  Me walking on tenderhooks, on edge, waiting for the next outburst.  Him, lacking all the good, “big kid” skills he had seemed to have gained for coping with life, ready to blow over having to put on his own shoes at any moment.  And then…  he grew out of it.  He just stopped.

This year it’s Mushroom, whose anxiety, which is always there on some level, has taken over his entire existence.  All his ways of coping have flown out the window.  All his great academic skills, especially with math, which he is usually pretty good at, seem to have gone with it.  I can’t asking him to do anything, academic, daily or otherwise without feeling like I’m risking a full on anxiety attack, complete with hyperventilation and weird squirrel sounds.  He has always been a kid overly concerned with rules and not doing things just right, but it has suddenly crossed some sort of line.  I’m not sure where it will end or whether what I’m doing is working.  I’m not sure if I need help or new strategies or just to wait it out and hug him tight.  I’m in that July place – questioning everything, unable to see the end.

All I can do is hope that whatever is going on inside his brain will spurt forward and let him grow again.  Or that if that’s not what’s going on, that the weather will cool off.  Or maybe that the universe will take pity on me and make it better somehow.  And in the mean time, I’m praying for September, which can’t come fast enough.