Wednesday, May 26, 2010

:: okay, maybe manipulation isn't quite the right word... ::

(i'll spare you the pictures that accompany this post...)

i had no idea just how much i would purposefully manipulate my children's emotions. if you'd asked me before i had kids -- even if you'd asked me a year ago -- i'd have said you were crazy.

but here i am with a son who's almost 3 and i'll tell ya: i manipulate the heck out of that kid's emotions.

because he's still learning.

the way i see it, things like excitement, nervousness, anxiety, suspense, and fear, they tend to feel the same, physiologically speaking. they're like fraternal quintuplets, all borne of the same womb. so how do we know which one we're feeling at any given time?

yesterday, the kids and i were in a car accident. a scarybad car accident that we all walked away from relatively unscathed. the car may or may not be totaled, and i did have a little dashboard-to-knee action that has turned me tender and twingy, but both kids are 100% a-ok, which of course is the miracle of the day.

(the accident was not, thankfully, my fault. we were broadsided (and pushed across four lanes of traffic, up a 6" stone curb, and fully onto the tree lawn) by a 79-year-old man who seems not to have had his wits about him. after he struck us he continued driving, turned onto a side road and then up onto the lawn and came head-on at us again. i had to yell stop as he came at us to get him to actually stop. very scary.)

anyway, it was scary. the kids were both crying. i was shaking. witnesses and neighbors were accumulating and sirens could be heard in the distance. then the kids and i sat on the ground while at least ten adults stood around us taking turns asking questions.

and thus commenced at least an hour of me trying my best to mold and manipulate my son's emotions. there was some encouragement: "it's okay to cry, evan. it was scary. that's okay. i feel like crying, too." there was also some diversion: "whoa, look, that's the biggest tear i've ever seen." there was minimization: "yes, we had a car accident, but look, it's all over and everyone is okay and just our car is a little bit broken." there was redirection: "i know you're sad right now, buddy, but can you help me out by making sure your sister doesn't try to eat the grass? can you be a good big brother and help protect her?"

but the most important manipulations have happened in the 36 hours since the accident. when he asks me to retell the story, i retell it. but i leave it flat. there are no details. i add no suspense. there are facts and they are brief and they satisfy his need to know without bringing up any of the physiological feelings from the event itself.

i so want him to know that what happened was scary, but that it's not scary now. it was overwhelming when it happened, but today it is merely inconvenient.

maybe i think about this stuff so much because of the way my own brain struggles to connect the right physiology with the right emotion. i have flight-or-flight responses to things that should be completely innocuous. i feel fear and anxiety keenly without any stimulus but a memory. the way i get through my moments of irrational fear is to manipulate my own responses -- to teach my body how to (and how not to) respond to stimuli.

i don't know how things will turn out with evan and whether he'll suffer the random anxiety that i sometimes suffer since my first bout with postpartum depression. but i can tell you this: he's dealt exceptionally well with the accident. maybe it's my attempts to help him deal with the emotions or maybe it's his own coping ability or maybe it's just plain old dumb luck.

but i have to say, i'm proud of him. i could learn a thing or two from this boy.


marzi May 26, 2010 at 10:43 PM  

great post julie! it's so great that even in such an unexpected event you were able to respond the way you did with your son. i hope that if i'm ever in the same situation i handle it as beautifully as you.

don May 26, 2010 at 10:43 PM  

Wow, so glad everyone is ok! I've never thought about how a child would deal with a car accident (let alone myself - since luckily I've never been in one!).

By the way, I usually read your blog through google reader but came to your page to write the comment, and I just love your blog header! So simple.

LLH Designs May 26, 2010 at 10:48 PM  

Don't even know you and I freaked for you. Yikes. Glad you are okay. I totally feel ya on the over-active "fight or flight" response (type A perfectionist?). You articulated your thoughts beautifully. -Linsey

daisy janie May 27, 2010 at 8:29 AM  

So, so glad you're all okay (goes without saying though)! I think what you've explained is one of the key, key, key pieces to parenting that most adults miss! Affect is everything - and the more non-chalant you can be about things like the foods they eat or don't, the falls they had, the cups they continue to drop, the bugs they see... and even more weighty things like a car accident... the better it is for their impressionable minds in the long run. Our reactions are all they have to go by, and being calm and thoughtful or completely ignoring certain things contributes significantly to raising a calm, non-worrisome, risk-taking human being.

Emma! May 27, 2010 at 12:43 PM  

So glad you and your little ones are ok.

Cricket May 27, 2010 at 9:16 PM  

Well first off I'm glad, so glad, you're all safe. How frightening.

I do a lot of manipulating my childrens' emotions. I never thought about it that way, but once you pointed it out - yes, of course, that's exactly what I do. I grew up in a house where it was all drama or all ambivalence. All fear or all indifference. It was all too much, or definitely not enough. And I want my kids to grow up knowing healthy emotions, but knowing that they are in control of those emotions. They can enjoy them or quiet them, but it is they who will be in control.

Thanks for sharing. Suddenly so much of what I do has become so clear.

Anonymous June 4, 2010 at 4:47 AM  

thoughtful post - you sound like a wonderful parent. all the best.


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